The “Super SuperMoon”


The full moon of November 14, 2016 will be the closest Supermoon to Earth since January 26,1948. The full moon won’t come this close again until November 25, 2034. Thus the November 2016 full moon is the closest and largest Supermoon in a period of 86 years!


The moon turns precisely full at 7:52 am CST on Monday, November 14 so the evenings of the 13th and 14th are best for seeing the larger full moon. Because it is opposite the sun in Earth’s sky, the full moon rises in the east at sunset, is high overhead at midnight, and sets in the west at sunrise. Thus this special Supermoon can be seen all night long.


To have a Supermoon, the moon must be full at the place in its orbit where it is closest to the Earth (called perigee). This November the full moon occurs within an hour and a half of perigee. On November 14, 2016 at 5:23 am CST, the distance between the moon and Earth will shrink to its smallest distance for the year: 221,524 miles (356,509 km). This super supermoon will be about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a normal full moon in Earth’s sky.


During a full moon, you can enjoy an interesting optical illusion by comparing the moon at moonrise (sunset) and the moon overhead (near midnight). The moon is not quite round and definitely orangish at moonrise. These are only atmospheric effects. Also the rising moon looks much larger than the moon high in the sky. This is an optical illusion: the moon is the same color, size, and shape all night long. Compare the moon to your thumb at moonrise and when the moon is overhead. The moon is actually the same width, even during the “Super Supermoon”.


Come to the Burke Baker Planetarium on the November 12-13 weekend to see a demonstration of the “Super Supermoon” in our Starry Night Express program.

Star Map: September 2016


Star Map September 2016

Venus is a little higher in the evening sky this month.    Look low in the west in evening twilight.


Mars and Saturn are now in the southwest at dusk. 


Mars continues to fade each night as Earth leaves it farther and farther behind.  Also, it moves faster than Saturn against the background stars, so you can watch Mars pull away from Saturn this month.   


Jupiter is behind the Sun and out of sight this month.  Conjunction (Jupiter directly behind the Sun) is on September 26.  


The Big Dipper is to the left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up.  From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk. 


Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left.  Saturn is right above Antares.  The Summer Triangle is almost overhead.  The stars of summer are here.  Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk, and is fully risen by month’s end.  Autumn is here.


Moon Phases in September 2016:


New 1st quarter Sept. 1, 4:03 am; Sept. 30, 7:11pm        


  1st Quarter  1st quarter1

September 9, 6:49 am       


  Full   full

September 16, 2:05 pm        


3rd Quarter3rd quarter

 September 23, 4:56 am  


The New Moon of September 1 blocks the Sun, causing an eclipse.  However, the Moon is too far away at the time to block the Sun completely, resulting in an annular rather than total eclipse.  Further, the whole event happens at night for us and is visible only in Africa. 


At 9:21 a.m. CDT on Thursday, September 22, the Sun is directly overhead as seen from the equator.  This marks the Autumnal Equinox, the ‘official’ start of fall.  On this date, everyone on earth has the same amount of daylight and night.  After this date, night becomes longer than day for us in the northern hemisphere.  Below the equator, day now becomes longer than night, and spring begins. 


This makes September one of the best months to observe an interesting effect.  You may have noticed that the spot where the Sun sets on the horizon varies day to day.  This variation is greatest, however, near the equinoxes in March and September.  Therefore, if you watch the Sun set each evening you can this month, the change will be quite noticeable. 


Come see us Saturday nights at the George Observatory!  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. 


satr mat sep 2016


       This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on September 1, 9 pm CDT on September 15, and 8 pm CDT on September 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.


The Summer Triangle is overhead.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west.  The Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk, heralding the coming autumn. 

You can learn more about the stars over Texas by visiting the Burke Baker Planetarium, here at HMNS. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Exciting Rare Mercury Transit Next Monday!

May Starmap

Jupiter is now high in the south at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it.

Mars and Saturn become late evening objects this month. Tonight, May 2, Mars rises in the southeast at 9:48 p.m. while Saturn comes up soon afterwards, at 10:24 p.m. By May 15, though, both planets rise during twilight, and on Memorial Day both are in the southeastern sky as soon as it gets dark. Mars and Saturn are still above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. As you watch them rise, Mars is to the upper right and is much brighter.

In fact, this month, Mars outshines all of the stars and even rivals Jupiter in brightness! That’s because on May 22, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. That alignment is called ‘opposition’ because it puts Mars opposite the Sun in our sky, making Mars visible literally all night long. It also makes Mars much brighter than normal in the sky, since we’re as close to it as we’ll ever get until Earth overtakes Mars again in 2018. Saturn comes to opposition June 3.

Venus is lost in the Sun’s glare and out of sight all month.

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 high in the east and in the south, respectively, at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead at dusk.

As Orion and his dogs set, look for Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. Saturn and Mars will rise with the Scorpion’s head, above Antares. 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

Moon Phases in May 2016:

New: May 6, 2:30 p.m.

First Quarter: May 13, 12:02 p.m.

Full: May 21, 4:14 p.m.

Last Quarter: May 29, 7:12 a.m.

Mercury Transit:

On Monday, May 9, 2016, Mercury overtakes Earth on its much faster orbit. This time, though, when Mercury passes Earth, the alignment is almost exact, such that Mercury appears in silhouette against the sun’s disk. This event is known as a transit of Mercury. Keep in mind that the planets are almost, but not exactly, in the same plane. Indeed, Mercury’s orbit is the most inclined — tilted up to 7 degrees from Earth’s orbital plane. That’s why Mercury does not usually transit the sun when it overtakes Earth. Monday’s event is therefore rare and special, occurring only 14 times in the 21st century (the next one occurs Nov. 11, 2019).


Thus, weather permitting, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has arranged for volunteers from local astronomy clubs to set up solar telescopes outside our museum’s main entrance, near the sundial, to show you the transit. Mercury, already in the sun’s disk by sunrise in Houston, takes until 1:42 p.m. to cross to the other side of the sun’s disk. If skies cooperate, we’ll observe the transit from 10 a.m. until 1:42 p.m. on Monday, May 9. If there are sunspots on the sun’s disk while Mercury is there, Mercury will stand out because its disk is fully round and because Mercury moves noticeably across the sun’s disk during the hours we’re watching.

We will observe the sun (and Mercury in silhouette) through telescopes with filters especially designed to filter the sun safely, and by projecting the sun’s image onto a screen. These are the only two ways to observe the Sun safely. Please do not try to observe the sun directly or through an unfiltered telescope, as this will lead to permanent eye damage or blindness. Our common sense tells us this because we always avert our eyes when we accidentally turn towards the Sun. When something cool happens on the sun, some of us try to override our common sense, and there is no reason to do so. Come observe safely with us.

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. As of now, George is closed which Brazos Bend State Park dries out from last month’s floods, and is scheduled to reopen May 10. If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Last Chance for Winter Constellations in April

Starmap April

Jupiter is now high in the east-southeast at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. 

Mercury is visible just after sunset this month. Face west at twilight, and look low in the sky over the point where the sun sets. Mercury isn’t as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, but it easily outshines the stars near it in the sky, so it’s not too hard to find. 

Mars is in the south-southwest at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition in May. It has now surpassed nearby Saturn in brightness.

Saturn is in the south-southwest at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars remains close to Saturn this month.

Venus is becoming lost in the sun’s glare. Already, it doesn’t rise until deep into morning twilight, and Venus continues to approach the sun all month.

April is the last month to see the set of brilliant winter stars which now fill the western evening sky. Dazzling Orion is in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points rightward to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. 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 left. Forming a triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse is Procyon, the Little Dog Star. 

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo, the Lion at dusk. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which includes the Big Dipper, is high above the North Star on spring evenings. Extend the Big Dipper’s handle to ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’. There are fewer bright stars in this direction because of where the plane of our galaxy is in the sky. The area of sky between Gemini and Taurus and over Orion’s head is the galactic anticenter, which means that we face directly away from the galactic center when we look in this direction. Those bright winter stars setting in the west are the stars in our galactic arm, right behind the sun. On the other hand, if you look at the sky between Ursa Major, Leo, Virgo, and Bootes, you’re looking straight up out of the galactic plane, towards the galactic pole. There are fewer stars in this direction.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in April 2016:

New: April 7, 6:24 a.m.

First Quarter: April 13, 10:59 p.m.

Full: April 22, 12:24 a.m.

Last Quarter: April 29 10:29 p.m.

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!