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:
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)

Go Stargazing! September Edition

Saturn leaves the evening sky in September 2011.  Face west southwest at dusk, and you’ll see Saturn near a star of similar brightness—Spica in Virgo.  Saturn is a bit to the right of Spica as you face southwest.

Each night this month, however, Saturn and Spica appear lower and lower to the horizon, until they set in twilight by mid-month.  When is the last night you can still see it?  Next month, Saturn is behind the Sun and invisible.

A Long Night Falls Over Saturn's Rings
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Jupiter is now a late evening object.  It rises before 10:45 pm on September 1, and just after 8:30 pm by September 30.  Face east at the appropriate time and look for the brightest thing there—that’ll be Jupiter.   The King of Planets continues to dominate the southwestern pre-dawn sky.  Mars is now a bit higher in the east at dawn.  Although it has brightened, many of the stars in the morning sky outshine it.  However, as it moves from Gemini into dimmer Cancer, Mars is quite identifiable.  Venus was behind the Sun last month, and is still lost in the Sun’s glare.

Io Close-Up with New L8 Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: FlyingSinger

The Big Dipper is beginning to pass under the North Star; Houstonians now need a clear northwestern horizon to see it at dusk.  From its handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars set in the west and southwest at dusk.  Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left.  Meanwhile, the Summer Triangle is virtually overhead.  The stars of summer now dominate the evening sky.  In late evening, you can watch the Great Square of Pegasus rise in the east.  Note that we look towards the center of our galaxy when we face between Scorpius and Sagittarius.  When facing the Great Square or especially south and east of that, we face out of the plane of our galaxy, a direction where there are fewer bright stars.  That’s why the large expanse of sky rising under Pegasus seems devoid of bright stars.

Moon Phases in September 2011:
First Quarter September 4, 12:39 pm
Full September 12, 4:26 pm
Last Quarter September 20, 8:39 am
New September 27, 6:08 pm

Autumnal Equinox

At 4:06 am CDT on Friday, September 23, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  This, then, is the autumnal equinox, a date when everyone in the world has the same amount of sunlight.  In the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve seen the days get a little shorter and the midday Sun a little lower each day since June 21.  For us, the season changes from summer to fall at the equinox.

In the Southern Hemisphere, people have seen the days lengthen and the midday Sun get a little higher each day since June.  For them, the season changes from winter to spring.

Rosh Hashanah

The New Moon of September 27 is the one closest to the fall equinox and therefore marks the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah is not on the New Moon itself but two days later on the 29th, when the slender crescent becomes visible in the west at dusk.

Astronomy Day 2011 at the George Observatory

Come join us anytime from 3 to 10 pm on October 8 for our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory. Dozens of telescopes—including our large research telescopes—will be available to give everyone a chance to enjoy the delights of the night sky, including star clusters, planets and galaxies.  Before dusk, we will have solar observing, Challenger Center simulations, outdoor and indoor presentations (beginning at 4) and many other activities!

Go Stargazing! June Edition

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Saturn is the only planet visable to us at night this June.  Face south at dusk, and you’ll see Saturn near a star of similar brightness — Spica in Virgo.  Saturn is significantly higher in the sky than Spica and a bit to its right as you face south.   The ringed planet is now well placed for evening viewing, and remains in the evening sky until late September 2011.

Mars and Jupiter are now higher in the pre-dawn sky.  Jupiter, set against a background of very dim stars, dominates the eastern sky at dawn.  Mars is dimmer and much lower in the east northeast.  It has fully emerged from the sun’s glare, however, and will brighten slightly each morning.  Venus does not rise until morning twilight.  Look for it very low in the east northeast as day breaks.

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, 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 2011:

New Moon                    June 1, 4:02 p.m.

1st Quarter                  June 8, 9:09 p.m. 

Full Moon                     June 15, 3:12 p.m.

Last Quarter               June 23, 6:48 a.m.

Red Light...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kıvanç Niş

The full moon of June 15 passes through the Earth’s shadow, causing a total eclipse of the Moon. Unfortunately, we miss out on that one, too, as the eclipse occurs during our daylight hours.  Anyone in the Eastern Hemisphere, though, can observe a central (and therefore especially long) total eclipse of the moon. 

At 12:17 p.m. on Tuesday, June 21, the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where this is possible.  This makes the midday sun as high in our sky as possible and gives us more daylight than on any other day of the year.  This moment is, therefore, the summer solstice.  However, the earliest sunrise for us is the morning of June 11 and the latest sunset is on June 30.  Those of us who sleep through sunrise and witness sunset may get the impression that the days are lengthening all the way to the end of the month.

By popular demand, our George Observatory will open to the public not only on Saturdays, but also all Friday nights in June and July (except July 8).  The Discovery Dome, our traveling planetarium, will be set up each of these Fridays to show films throughout the evening.

2012: Did the Maya Predict an Apocalypse?

For the last 2 years, the Astronomy Department of the Houston Museum of Natural Science has searched and researched Maya ruins and writings for connections between the Mayan calendar and the ability of Maya astronomers to predict future events.

To record the passage of time, the Maya developed a 260-day ritual cycle, made up of thirteen numbers and twenty names. With this continuous running cycle, they could predict future events like the harvesting of crops and the birth of children. The Maya kept a second 365-day solar calendar of 18 months, each lasting 20 days, plus 5 extra days to complete the year. This calendar determined the growing season and the annual return of the rains. For longer time periods the Maya used a 5-number Long Count. On December 21st, 2012, for instance, this Long Count has a new beginning as the date changes from to This is similar to the change from 1999 to 2000 in our modern calendar and is the cause of much 2012 speculation.

Great Temples
The homeland of the Maya stretches from southern Mexico to northern Central America. Our new planetarium show, 2012: Mayan Prophecies (Now Showing!), explores the great Maya cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque. For survival, the Maya created these great urban centers to store rainwater through the dry season and built observatories to determine when the annual rains would begin.

The Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza is a temple to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Each of its 4 staircases has 91 steps for 364 steps in all with a top step into the temple – one step for each day of the year.  According to legend, Kukulcan returns to his pyramid on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, descending the staircase in an undulating shadow.

In the nearby Caracol observatory, astronomers watched Kukulcan, who appeared in the heavens as the planet Venus. Through motions of the brilliant Venus, they determined the will of Kukulcan and the time for human sacrifices to honor this sky god and give thanks for the rains he would soon send.

photo courtesy of Raymond Ostertag

The Maya carved the great city of Tikal out of the rain forest in the lowlands of modern Guatemala. In this city of up to 100,000, all water came from the sky. Tikal’s rulers cleared the rain forest, channeled the water in swamps to grow crops, and built cisterns and catch basins to store water during the rainy season. Tikal’s power depended on storing enough water to last until the rains returned each spring.

Five giant pyramids helped astronomers predict when the rainy season would begin. On December 21, for instance, astronomers on Temple 4 could watch the sun rise farthest to the south, over the Pyramid of the Jaguar Priest. From this date forward, they knew that the sun would rise a little more to the north each day. At the vernal equinox, the sun would always rise over Temple 1, an event that must happen before the rains could begin.

In the foothills of Mexico’s southern mountains, lies the Maya city of Palenque. Blessed with abundant rain and flowing rivers, the artisans of Palenque had time to create some of the most elaborate and exquisite Mayan art and the most delicate of buildings. Here inscriptions describe the beginning of the Maya long count cycle and chronicle events far into the future, but no mention of 2012.

There has been a subtle change in the sky in the 1,300 years since the time of the classic Maya. Due to the wobble of Earth’s spin axis, different stars rise with the sun in each season.

For instance, at the time of the Maya, the glowing Milky Way band was above the sun at sunrise on the winter solstice.  Now in December, the sun reaches its lowest point at noon in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way, near the direction of the galaxy’s center.

Does this mean that galactic forces are now aligned? Did the Maya predict this alignment? We have no data to indicate that the Maya recognized the 26,000-year cycle that caused this alignment. There is no documented connection between the Earth-centered Maya cosmos and our modern universe.

Classic Maya civilization did experience a great apocalypse, but it occurred long before the Spanish Conquest.

For over a millennium, the major cities of the Maya have stood abandoned – deserted by their citizens, conquered by weather and reclaimed by the rainforest. At their culture’s height, many of the Maya faced the worst drought in thousands of years. It devastated a civilization that had cut down the rainforest to grow crops and destroyed urban centers that could not store enough water for their people. In less than a hundred years, over a hundred thousand Maya disappeared, leaving their parched cities and their withered fields, rejecting the divine right and Earthly power of their kings. By the thousands they returned to the rainforest and mountains to a sustainable population and way of life.

As we sense the fragility of our own culture today, we may discover a warning for 2012 in the ruins of these great Maya cities — silent sentinels, witnesses of the apocalypse of the Maya.

Explore pyramids towering above the rainforest, designed as observatories to follow the sun. Experience the apocalypse of the Maya and discover how our fate in 2012 may be foretold in our new planetarium show 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Check out the extended preview below!

Can’t see the video? 2012: Mayan Prophecies from HMNS on Vimeo.