Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Saturn and Perseid meteors bright in August

Star map Aug

Saturn is now in the south-southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see.

Mars emerges into the morning sky this month. Look for it low in the east at dawn.  Mars remains dimmer then average, though, and won’t rival the brighter stars until next spring.

Venus and Jupiter are in line with the Sun and out of sight this month. Venus emerges into the morning sky fairly quickly, though; try looking for it low in the east at dawn the last week of August.

The Big Dipper is left of 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 southwest at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is to the right of the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle is almost overhead. The Great Square of Pegasus now rises soon after dusk, indicating that despite this 100 degree heat, autumn is on the way.

 

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Moon Phases in August 2015:

Last Quarter: Aug. 6, 9:03 pm

New: Aug. 14, 9:53 am

First Quarter: Aug. 22, 2:31 pm

Full: Aug. 29, 1:35 pm;

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks every year in mid-August—this year on Aug. 13. Remember that this is a shower, not a storm; you can expect a meteor per minute on average. Also, Earth is actually running into the meteor stream, rather than the meteors running into us. This means that the shower gets better as you get closer to dawn. Our George Observatory will be open late Wednesday night, Aug. 12, until 2 a.m. and Thursday, Aug. 13, for viewing the Perseids. 

For the Planetarium schedule, see www.hmns.org

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. I generally do one such tour on short August evenings.

Clear Skies!

 

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars aligns with Earth and sun, solstice on its way

seeing stars

Venus is in the west at dusk. At dusk, look high over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there; it outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon. 

Jupiter is also in the west as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk. During June, watch Venus gradually close the gap on Jupiter, until they are just over one-third of one degree apart on the evening of June 30.

Saturn is now in the southeastern sky at dusk. Although it is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, it outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. 

Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun. Conjunction (Mars in line with Earth and Sun, behind the Sun) is June 14.

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. Venus and Jupiter come together right in front of Leo’s face, marked by stars in the shape of a sickle, or a backwards question mark.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.

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Moon Phases in June 2015:

Full: June 2, 11:19 a.m.

Last Quarter: June 9, 10:42 a.m.

New: June 16, 9:05 a.m.

First Quarter: June 24, 6:03 a.m.

At 11:38 a.m. on Sunday, June 21, the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where it can be overhead. This puts the Sun as high as possible in our skies, and marks the summer solstice. Of all the days of the year, we’ll have the most daylight and the least night on June 21. In the southern hemisphere, the sun is as low as possible in the sky as they experience the least daylight and the longest night of the year. It’s the winter solstice down there.

Due to the equation of time, the latest sunset occurs for us on June 30, not June 21. Thus, if we sleep through sunrise and watch sunset, as most of us do, days seem to lengthen all the way to the end of the month.

For more information about shows at the Burke Baker Planetarium, visit the 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. I generally do one such tour on short June evenings.

Clear Skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Restored Gueymard offers views of brilliant Jupiter this May

Star Map May 2015Mercury is low in the west-northwest, below and slightly to the right. It remains visible for the first half of May before returning towards the Sun.

Venus is in the west at dusk. Look high over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there. 

Jupiter is now high in the west as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk.   

Saturn enters the evening sky this month. It rises May 1 by 9:40 p.m. By May 22, it is up literally all night; it rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. This is because Earth is aligned between the Sun and Saturn on that date. We therefore say that Saturn is at opposition. 

Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun.

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 Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. Saturn will be right on 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.Phases10-9x-3w

Moon Phases in May 2015

Full: May 3, 10:42 pm

Last Quarter: May 11, 5:36 am

New: May 18, 11:13 pm

First Quarter: May 25, 12:19 pm

Click here for the Burke Baker Planetarium schedule.

In case you missed the news, the main telescope at George Observatory is once again fully operational. Thanks in large part to public support, we were able to get our mirror cleaned and then reinstalled. The newly refurbished mirror was opened to the public last weekend. Come join us on clear Saturday nights at the George!

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. I generally do one such tour on short May evenings.

Clear skies!