Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Changing stars remind us that summer’s coming

 This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on May 1, 9 pm CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast.  Saturn is below Spica in Libra.  Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on May 1, 9 p.m. CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast. Saturn is below Spica in Libra. Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.

Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mercury appears in the evening sky this month. Too close to the Sun to observe on May 1, Mercury gradually comes from behind the Sun and by mid-month, it appears low on the western horizon at dusk right above the point of sunset. Greatest elongation (apparent distance from Mercury to the Sun) is on May 25.

Mars is in the southeast at dusk this month. On April 8, Earth passed between the Sun and Mars. Mars has dimmed a little since then as Earth has begun to leave it behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is up all night long this month. On May 10, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting Saturn at opposition. That night, Saturn rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. Thus, Saturn is very low in the southeast at dusk, and very low in the southwest at sunup.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east 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.

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 in the east and southeast at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. 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 in May 2014:

1st Quarter: May 6, 10:16 pm 
Full May: 14, 2:18 pm
Last Quarter:  May 21, 7:59 am
New May: 28, 1:42 pm 

Click here to see the HMNS 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.

Clear skies!

Looking to move? Try Mars! Robert Zubrin on the fast track to colonizing Mars

In July 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, President George H.W. Bush called for America to renew its pioneering push into space with the establishment of a permanent lunar base and a series of human missions to Mars. Almost 25 years later, these goals still seem like pipe dreams to many Americans. However, as the nation debates how to proceed with human space exploration, a human mission to Mars must still be on the table.

While many have said that such an endeavor would be excessively costly and take decades to complete, a small team at Martin Marietta drew up a daring plan that could sharply cut costs and send a group of American astronauts to the Red Planet within ten years.

The plan, known as Mars Direct, has attracted both international attention and broad controversy.

Mars Direct is a sustained humans-to-Mars plan, advocating a minimalist, live-off-the-land approach to exploring the planet Mars. It allows for maximum results with minimum investment. Using existing launch technology and making use of the Martian atmosphere to generate rocket fuel, extracting water from the Martian soil and eventually using the abundant mineral resources of the Red Planet for construction purposes, the plan drastically lowers the amount of material which must be launched from Earth to Mars. Thus, it sidesteps the primary stumbling block to space exploration, and rapidly accelerates the timetable for human exploration of the solar system.

The principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin, has presented the plan to such fora as the blue ribbon Synthesis Group, headed by former Apollo astronaut General Thomas Stafford, the Augustine Committee, as well as to various government officials, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator John McCain, and NASA Administrators Dan Goldin, Mike Griffin, and Charles Bolden.

He will present at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on May 7 at 7 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. Click here for advance tickets.

Principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin

HMNS DISTINGUISHED LECTURE
“Mars Direct: Humans to the Red Planet within a Decade,” with Robert Zubrin, Ph.D.
Wednesday, May 7, 7 p.m.
HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12

Can Americans reach the Red Planet in our time? Principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin, addresses this question. Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society. Following the lecture, he will sign copies of his popular books The Case for Mars, How to Live on Mars, and Merchants of Despair. Click here for advance tickets.

SPECIAL EVENING SCREENING
The Great Planet Adventures
Wednesday, May 7, 6 p.m.
HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium
Tickets $8, HMNS Members $4

Discover what it would be like to live, dress, and work on each planet and what you would need to survive in each planetary environment — particularly the local weather and gravity fields. Click here for advance tickets.

A total eclipse over Houston: What color was last night’s ‘blood Moon’?

I hope you saw the eclipse last night and didn’t lose too much sleep. The weather was perfect and the Moon performed as predicted. The press excitedly dubbed it a ‘blood Moon,’ but we didn’t know what color the Moon would actually be.

Here’s the Moon entering eclipse and fully in the Earth’s shadow (taken from my front yard). Is it a ‘blood Moon’ after all? You be the judge.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

These photos were taken by my husband, Gary Young. (I was the frozen assistant.) We used a Takahashi FCT-76 telescope and a Canon 60D camera to capture the photos.

It was a spectacular eclipse, with Mars nearby to the right and Saturn off to the left. Both planets were very bright and easy to identify. The star near the Moon (and just off the field of these images) was Spica in the constellation Virgo.

The planet Mars at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of April

Editor’s note: Press play on the SoundCloud track to really get in the Mars mood while you read.

April is the best month in 2014 to see our blushing cosmic neighbor, Mars! And you’ll definitely want to make a trip out to the George Observatory this Saturday for a Mars Viewing Party from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take a peek at the marvelous Red Planet while you make the best of this opportunity away from city lights, using some great equipment among cheery fellow astro-enthusiasts.

But what makes April 2014 so special? Here are some reasons (and dates) to make sure you take advantage of the best viewing opportunities:

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

On April 8, Mars reaches opposition, something that only happens every 26 months. This means that Earth (and therefore you and me) will be right in between the Sun and Mars. This creates some great viewing opportunities, since Mars rises as the Sun sets and will be up all night long.

SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT

Because of their elliptical orbits, Earth and Mars will be at their closest on April 14. If the planets’ orbits were perfectly circular, they would always reach their closest points at opposition. However, since Mars’ orbit is more eccentric (more egg-shaped, less circular) than Earth’s, this point of closest approach is happening just after opposition.

The closer we are to an object in space, the bigger and brighter it appears to us. So as we approach our closest point to Mars, the planet’s luminosity (brightness) will appear to increase.

WANDERING STARS

The word planet derives from the ancient Greek word for “wandering star.” This apparent “wandering,” or retrograde motion, happens whenever Earth reaches opposition with an outer planet, and then passes it due to our orbit closer to the sun. As we approach and then pass Mars, it will appear to move backward in the sky in relation to the stars behind it, then continue on its regular path across the sky.

This retrograde motion was one of the first reasons people began to question the Earth-centered model of the universe. If Earth was at the center of everything, and stars existed in crystal domes above it, why would these planets move differently? No clear reason was apparent until we realized planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun.

So if you keep your eye on Mars this month, you will have the chance to see one of the earliest questions in astronomy for what it really is – and that’s really awesome.

Mapping of Mars’ retrograde motion from Earth’s point of view

For the best chance to catch a glimpse of Mars, make sure you come out to the George Observatory this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.!