Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Five planets at dawn, leap day this February!

Star Map

Jupiter is now a late evening object, rising in the east. It rises by 9 p.m. on Feb. 1, and by Feb. 29 it comes up just before 7 p.m., which is during evening twilight. Jupiter comes to opposition on March 8, which is when Earth aligns with Jupiter and the Sun. That is why Jupiter is up all night long in late February and early March.

As dawn approaches this month, Jupiter will still be visible, this time high in the west.  Meanwhile, the four other visible planets will have risen as well. That’s right, February 2016  features all five naked-eye planets at dawn!

Venus is in the southeast at dawn. You can’t miss it, as Venus outshines all the stars we see at night, and in fact outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon.

Mars is in the south at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition next spring. 

Saturn is in the south southeast at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars slowly approaches Saturn this month.

Mercury is the biggest challenge to find. This month, though, Mercury is very close to Venus and to its left. Thus, once you find Venus, the brightest dot to its left is Mercury. 

Mercury is the first planet to leave the gathering as it heads back towards the Sun late this month. The cutoff date of Feb. 20 is somewhat arbitrary, though. It’s better to watch the sky and, using Venus as your guide, see for yourself when is the last day you can still see Mercury before losing it the Sun’s glare. The next to leave is Jupiter, which shifts into the evening sky after opposition. 

Taurus, the Bull, is high in the south. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter, takes center stage on winter evenings.  Surrounding Orion are the brilliant stars of winter. Orion’s belt points down to Sirius, the Dog Star, which outshines all other stars we ever see at night. The Little Dog Star, Procyon, rises with Sirius and is level with Orion’s shoulder as they swing towards the south. To the upper left of Orion’s shoulder is Gemini, the Twins.

Under Sirius and low to the southern horizon this month is a star that most Americans never get to see—Canopus. Representing the bottom (keel) of the legendary ship Argo, Canopus is the second brightest star ever visible at night. Thus, it is clearly noticeable along the southern horizon on February and March evenings. However, you must be south of 37 degrees north to see Canopus rise. (This is the line that divides Utah, Colorado, and Kansas from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.)

The sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on the time of night and time of year.  From any given location in our hemisphere, there is an area of the sky around the North Star in which stars never set (circumpolar stars), and an equivalent area around the South Celestial Pole in which stars never rise. The closer you are to the pole, the larger these areas are. The closer you get to the equator, the fewer circumpolar stars there are, but there are also fewer stars that never rise for you. At the equator, no stars are either circumpolar or never visible; all of them rise and set as Earth turns. 

That’s why, down here in south Texas, the Big Dipper sets for a while although it’s always up for most Americans. On the other hand, Canopus, too far south to rise for most Americans, rises for us.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in February 2016:

Last Quarter: Jan. 31, 9:28 p.m.

New: Feb. 8, 8:39 a.m.

First Quarter: Feb. 15, 1:46 a.m.

Full: Feb. 22, 12:20 p.m.

(February is so short that last quarter Moons occur on Jan. 31 and March 1, but not in February). 

The New Moon of Feb. 8 is the second New Moon after the winter solstice. Accordingly, it marks Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey!

Monday, Feb. 29, is leap day. This day exists because our normal year of 365 days is too short. The true length of one Earth orbit around the Sun is 365 days and almost 6 hours.  No one wants to begin a year in the middle of a day, however. Therefore, we let the error add up over four years, until it becomes 24 hours, or one whole day, then add that day back to the calendar. Thus, February 29 occurs every four years. 

Almost 6 hours?  Well, alright, the difference between our orbit and our year is actually 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds. That makes our system a very slight overcorrection.  To prevent that from adding up, we’ll skip leap day in 2100, 2200, and 2300. 

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!

Geminid Meteor Shower offers a brilliant weekend at the George!

The annual Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this weekend, and we’ve got some tips for stargazers hoping to catch it.

The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Comet orbits are so oblong that that they cross Earth’s orbit almost at right angles. For most meteor showers, then, Earth doesn’t rotate us to face the debris field until after midnight. The less oblong orbit of an asteroid meets Earth’s orbit at a shallower angle. Thus, we rotate to face into the debris field earlier in the night, even before midnight. With Geminids, then, we see significant activity as early as 9 or 10 p.m., although the shower will likely peak just before dawn.


The Geminid meteor shower is one of the brightest, most active, and most remarkable annual stellar events.

A new moon falls on Thursday, Dec. 10 this year. That makes Sunday night’s moon a slender crescent which sets by 8 p.m. This should guarantee us nice, dark night for viewing once the shower gets going. The Geminid Meteor shower peaks every December and is one of the best, most reliable showers, producing an average of 100 meteors per hour.

They’re called the Geminids, by the way, because we see them seem to ‘radiate’ from an area of sky near Castor, a bright star in Gemini, the Twins. In December, Gemini is still rising at dusk, but it has cleared the horizon by 8 p.m., passes high overhead at about 1 a.m., and is in the west by dawn. Remember, though, that not all meteors will be in Gemini! They just seem to radiate from that direction, which means that wherever they appear, the streak will seem to move away from Gemini.


Therefore, it’s best to lie on your back so you can observe as much of the sky as possible at once. Remember to have patience, as the 100 meteors per hour is about one or two per minute on average. One minute can be a long time if you waiting for something to happen.


Weather permitting, telescopes, including the Gueymard Research Telescope, will be available for public use at the George Observatory until 10 p.m. during the Geminid Meteor Shower event.

As with all showers, the Geminid Meteor Shower will be best viewed away from city light pollution, weather permitting. The George Observatory will be open Sunday night until midnight for observation. For directions to The George, located just an hour southwest of Houston, click here. Entry to Brazos Bend State Park is $7 per person; free for kids under 12. You don’t need any special equipment for viewing, just a chair, blankets and maybe some hot apple cider.


Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Southern sky brings beasts and gods of water in November

November Sky

Saturn sets in twilight for the first week of November and is lost in the sun’s glare the rest of the month. 

Venus, Mars and Jupiter are still close together in the morning sky this month. Right now, Venus is close to Mars, with Jupiter above them. Venus and Mars are 0.68 degrees apart the morning of Nov. 3. Venus is brighter than Jupiter, and both outshine all stars we ever see at night, so they’re easy to find even in twilight. Mars is much, much dimmer than those two. The moon is near Jupiter on Nov. 6 and near Venus on Nov. 7. During this month, watch as Venus pulls away from Mars and both pull away from Jupiter. 

Autumn represents a sort of ‘intermission’ in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter patterns such as Orion won’t rise until later (Orion is up by about 10 p.m. now and about 9 p.m. mid-month). The Summer Triangle is in the west.   Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is almost overhead. The stars in the southern sky are much dimmer than those overhead and in the west because when you face south at dusk in November, you face out of the Milky Way plane. The plane of our Galaxy follows a path from the Summer Triangle in the west through Cassiopeia in the north and over to the northeastern horizon.  

Constellations in the November southern sky represent beasts and gods related to water, indicating that they are part of the ‘Celestial Sea.’  Examples are Aquarius, the Water Bearer and Pisces, the Fish.  Even Capricornus, the Goat, has a fish tail because he’s originally Ea, Babylonian god of the waters. Below Aquarius is Fomalhaut, marking the mouth of the Southern Fish. Ancient Mesopotamians imagined that the Persian Gulf extended upwards into the sky, joining this ‘sea’ of dim stars.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in November 2015:

Last Quarter: Nov. 3, 6:24 a.m.

New: Nov. 11, 11:47 a.m.

First Quarter: Nov. 19, 12:27 a.m.

Full: Nov. 25, 4:44 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!


Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Planets near alignment, Astronomy Day arrives, and the clock ‘falls back’ this October

October Seeing Stars

Saturn is now in the southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. By Halloween night, however, Saturn sets in twilight; it drops into the Sun’s glare next month. 

Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will come close together in the sky late this month. Right now, the three planets are almost in a vertical line, with Venus, Jupiter on the bottom, and Mars in between. Venus is brighter than Jupiter and both outshine all stars we ever see at night, so they’re easy to find even in twilight. Mars is much, much dimmer than those two. It is now just below (and slightly dimmer than) the star Regulus in Leo.  During this month, watch as Mars gains on Jupiter and Venus gains on them both. Mars overtakes Jupiter Oct. 17, when they are just 0.38 degrees apart. By way of comparison, your pinky held at arm’s length blocks about one degree. Venus then passes one degree from Jupiter Oct. 26. That morning, the three planets form the most compact alignment, fitting within a circle 3.35 degrees across. Venus goes on to overtake Mars the morning of Nov. 3. They are 0.68 degrees apart that morning.

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

Autumn represents sort of an ‘intermission’ in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter patterns such as Orion have not yet risen. The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest early in the evening. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is in the east, indicating that autumn has begun. The stars rising in the east are much dimmer than those overhead and in the southwest because when you face east at dusk in October, you face out of the Milky Way plane. The center of our galaxy lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius, while the Summer Triangle is also in the galactic plane. Pegasus, on the other hand, is outside the plane of our galaxy and is a good place to look for other galaxies. Nearby constellations Andromeda and Triangulum (a small triangle) contain the spiral galaxies nearest to our own.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in October 2015:

Last Quarter: Oct. 4, 4:06 p.m.

New: Oct. 12, 7:06 p.m.

1st Quarter: Oct. 20, 3:31 p.m.

Full: Oct. 27, 7:05 p.m.

Our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory is Saturday, Oct. 24! On Astronomy Day, we have activities from 3 to 10 p.m., and all of the telescopes, even the ones that normally cost $5 to look through, are free. It’s the biggest astronomy event in southeast Texas! Click here for more information.

Halloween is on Saturday this year, which means that the next day, Nov. 1, is the first Sunday of November. Therefore, Daylight Saving Time ends and we ‘fall back’ to standard time at 2 a.m. that morning. (The time goes from 1:59 a.m. back to 1 a.m., giving us the 1 a.m. hour twice.) So get your #ChillsAtHMNS, don’t forget to set your clocks back, and enjoy your extra hour of sleep Halloween night!

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!