Go Stargazing! May Edition

Saturn is the only planet in May 2011 evening skies.  Face south southeast 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.  Last month, Earth passed between the Sun and Saturn.  That alignment, called opposition, put Saturn in the sky all night long.  The ringed planet is now well placed for evening viewing, and remains in the evening sky until late September 2011.

mars-06-crop
Mars
Creative Commons License photo credit: chipdatajeffb

The other four naked eye planets are involved in a very close gathering low in the east at dawn.  You will need a clear view all the way to the east northeastern horizon at daybreak to observe this planet massing.  However, the planets do outshine all stars in this general area. If you’re able to observe any points of light just above the horizon as dawn begins, you’re probably seeing the planets.  As of now, Venus and Mercury rise first, with Mercury about a degree under the brighter Venus.  Mars and Jupiter are a bit to their lower left, with Mars a little to the left of Jupiter.  Mars was less that half a degree above Jupiter on May 1, and is now slowly pulling away from it.  Venus and Mercury are moving faster, so they are closing the gap on Mars and Jupiter.

On the morning of May 11, Venus and Mercury will be aligned with Jupiter, with Venus less than one degree from Jupiter.  This is also when the entire grouping is the most compact, with all four planets within six degrees of one another.  By May 21, Mercury and Venus will have caught up with Mars, with Venus just over a degree from the red planet.  After this, Mercury and Venus pull ahead of Mars and thus go deeper into the sun’s glare.  Mars and Jupiter, left behind, remain in the morning sky all summer.

Star Gazing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk this month.  Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  To Orion’s right is Taurus, the Bull, with the star Aldebaran as its eye. 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 2011:

New Moon                              May 3, 1:50 a.m.

1st Quarter                             May 10, 3:32 p.m.

Full Moon                               May 17, 6:07 a.m.

Last Quarter                          May 24, 1:51 p.m.

Go Stargazing! July Edition

During July, you can watch a great planet race, as Venus closes in on Mars while they both close in on Saturn!

Saturn is now in the south southwest at dusk.  Look just to the west of due south, about 2/3 of the way up from the horizon to the zenith.

Venus remains high in the evening sky during July.  Face west at dusk and look for a point of light that outshines everything in the sky but the Sun and the Moon.

Mars is also in the western sky.  Look in the west at dusk for a reddish point of light between Venus and Saturn.

Observe all three carefully throughout July and watch as they get closer together.  By July 31, Mars will have caught up to Saturn, with Venus only about 7.5 degrees away.  Keep watching next month as Mars moves ahead of Saturn and Venus passes them both.

Jupiter is in the south at dawn this month.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  By July 31, Jupiter rises at about 11 p.m.; it will be a late evening object next month.

In the west, a distinct backwards question mark shape outlines the mane and forepaws of Leo, the Lion.  Three stars forming a right triangle are to its upper left; they mark Leo’s hindquarters.  This month, the Lion serves as the backdrop for the great planet race described above.  The Big Dipper is high in the northwest at dusk. You can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica.’  These stars high in the west and southwest, respectively, by dusk tonight.  Arcturus, by the way, is the fourth brightest star we ever see at night, but the brightest one Americans ever see in all of July.

In the east, look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.   This triangle is up all night long in July, hence its name.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast at dusk.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is to its left.  Between these two star patterns is the center of our Milky Way—the brightest part of that band as wee see it.  On a cloudless night far from the big city, see if you notice the Milky Way glow near the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius.

Summer Triangle

Moon Phases in July 2010:

Last Quarter                       July 4, 9:36 am

New Moon                            July 11, 2:40 pm

1st Quarter                         July 18, 5:11 am

Full Moon                            July 25, 8:36 pm

Flag of Turkey
Creative Commons License photo credit: steelight

The new moon of Sunday, July 11, will align precisely with the sun and Earth, casting its shadow on the Earth.  This will cause a total solar eclipse.

Unfortunately, the shadow’s path is entirely over the South Pacific Ocean.  Easter Island and certain islands of French Polynesia are the only land where totality can be seen.  Even partial phases are visible only from South America.

On Tuesday, July 6, Earth is as far from the sun as it will get this year, a position called aphelion.  Remember, the Earth’s orbit is not quite a circle but an ellipse.  We are therefore slightly closer to the Sun in January than in July.  Also, remember that the difference between our January and July distances from the Sun is small.  When it comes to making us hotter or colder, the effect of our axial tilt dominates.

On the Tenth Day of HMNS…Explore the Cosmos at The George Observatory

The first time I went to the George Observatory, I saw Saturn. With my own eyes. Not a picture, not an artist’s rendering – the actual planet. It was…well, let’s just say I left full of a sense of wonder at the universe we live in – and the centuries of scientific achievements that have made that experience possible.

The Gueymard Telescope at the George Observatory is one of the largest in the country that is available for public use – and once you start looking through it, you won’t want to tear your eyes away. Saturday nights throughout the year, local astronomers and museum staff gather at the Observatory, and you can view through the Museum’s telescopes or the dozens that people bring with them. Some people get pretty high tech with it (check out this digiscoped picture) and it’s always a lot of fun.

In the video below, Barbara Wilson, the George Observatory astronomer, discusses what you can see at the Observatory – and talks about the most commonly asked questions, like “Have you ever seen a UFO?” Check out Barbara’s answer in the video below and visit the Observatory this holiday season to get all your cosmic questions answered.

The George Observatory is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Check out the first nine days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.
On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.
On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.
On the eighth day, meet the HMNS Entomologists.
On the ninth day, peer into the Gem Vault.

What the Heck is a Tues, Wed, Thurs, or Fri?

Earth Mars and Moon to scale
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bluedharma

We measure time based on motions in space.  The Earth rotates on its axis once a day.  The Moon orbits the Earth about once a month.  The Earth orbits the Sun once a year.  That leaves the week as the only aspect of our calendar not directly tied to the Earth, Moon, or Sun. The week, as it turns out, is based on the other planets of our solar system–at least, those easily visible to the naked eye.

Early astronomers were able to distinguish planets from stars because planets seem to move against the starry background.  The stars are always rising, moving across the sky, and setting due to Earth’s rotation.  They seem to form the same patterns all the time; we never see them move relative to each other.  (In fact the stars do have proper motion, but we don’t notice it over a time frame as short as a human life or even over several generations).  Anything shifting noticeably over several days was a ‘wandering star’, or planet.  Early astronomers identified seven ‘wanderers': the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and the Greeks placed them in just that order.

This order, of course, is wrong; it makes the basic error of putting the Sun in orbit around the Earth when in fact the Earth orbits the Sun.  Fixing this error by replacing the Sun with the Earth, however, makes the order from Mercury to Saturn correct.  That’s because the order is based on something directly observable–the planets seem to move among the background stars at different rates.  Ancient observers saw the Moon reappear near the same set of stars once a month.  Saturn, on the other hand, takes 29.5 years to reappear in the same part of the sky. 

The different speeds are even more apparent when two or more planets are near one another in the sky (an alignment called conjunction).  Any planet in conjunction with Saturn catches up to Saturn and then passes it.  It’s never the other way around.  Any planet (other than Saturn) in conjunction with Jupiter catches and passes Jupiter, never the other way around.  For early astronomers, slowness was associated with distance.  By carefully observing the planets’ motions and planetary conjunctions, early observers could place them in order.

Ancient Roman writer Dio Cassius was among the first to explain how the order of the planets from slowest to fastest (and thus from outside in) generated the week.  The system involves the 24-hour day and an astrological belief that each hour was ‘ruled’ by a planet following the order above, such that Saturn’s hour was followed by Jupiter’s, then Mars’, then the Sun’s, and so on.  Further, whichever planet governed the first hour of each day governed that whole day.  On Saturn’s day, then, the hours were as follows:

1) Saturn  2) Jupiter  3) Mars  4) Sun  5) Venus  6) Mercury  7) Moon 8. Saturn  9) Jupiter  10) Mars  11) Sun  12) Venus  13) Mercury  14) Moon  15) Saturn  16) Jupiter  17) Mars  18) Sun  19) Venus  20) Mercury  21) Moon  22) Saturn  23) Jupiter  24) Mars  25) Sun

Since there are 24 hours in a day, the 25th hour of Saturn’s day is the first hour of the next day.  Therefore, Saturn-day is followed by Sun-day.  Redo the list of hours, this time starting with the Sun, such that hours 1, 8, 15, and 22 are the Sun’s.  Hour 25 becomes the Moon’s hour, which means the Sun-day is followed by Moon-day.  Repeat the list with the Moon in first position, and eventually the following order of days emerges:

1) Saturn-day  2) Sun-day  3) Moon-day  4) Mars-day  5) Mercury-day  6) Jupiter day  7) Venus-day

If Venus governs the first hour, Saturn governs the 25th, and the cycle begins again.  A full table of the hours and days is here (this list also has the name of the days in 30 different languages).

You probably recognize Saturday, Sunday, and Monday in this list.  To get the other English day names from this list, we have to translate by replacing the planet names, which are names of Roman deities, with roughly equivalent Germanic deities.  Languages derived directly from Latin have preserved the Roman gods’ (thus the planets’) names more faithfully.  For example, you can recognize Latin luna (the Moon) in French lundi, Spanish lunes, and Italian lunedì.

Apollo Belvedere
Creative Commons License photo credit: Alun Salt

Similarly, Mars-day is martes in Spanish, mardi in french, and martedì in Italian.  Germanic tribes, however, replaced the Roman war god Mars with their own warlike god Tiw (or Tyr for the Norse).  Thus, Mars’ day became Tiw’s day or Tuesday.

‘Mercury-day’ is recognizable in French mercredi, Spanish miércoles, and Italian mercoledì.  The Germanic pantheon had no messenger god that corresponded well to the Roman Mercury, so they equated him with Woden (Norse Odin).  Both Woden and Mercury were gods who escorted the recently deceased to the underworld.  Also, Woden became the fastest god when he rode his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

UN_Zeus
Creative Commons License photo credit: Pro-Zak

Jupiter’s original name in Latin was Jovis (‘Jove’ to English writers); the name Jupiter is a contraction of Jovis pater (‘father Jove’).  ‘Jove-day’ is recognizable in French jeudi, Spanish jueves, and Italian giovedì.   Although Jupiter, like the Greek Zeus, was the king of all the gods, his actual domain was the weather.  In particular, he was the god who caused storms and struck people with lightning.  Thus Germanic tribes assigned his day to Thor, their god of thunder.  Thor’s day is Thursday.

‘Venus-day’ is still recognizeable in French vendredi, Spanish viernes, and Italian venerdì.  Germanic tribes replaced Venus’s name with that of Frigg, the wife of Woden who was associated with married women and whom they called upon to help in giving birth.  Frigg-day is Friday.

As the Germanic tribes had no one in their pantheon who even roughly corresponded to Saturn, Saturn’s name remains in Saturday.  Ironically, the Latin-based languages have lost ‘Saturn-day’ as the day’s name.  Spanish sábado and Italian sabato derive from the word ‘sabbath’ (as does French samedi, through a more complex etymology).  This is due to the influence of the Catholic Church, which was loath to name the days of the week after pagan gods, and sought to replace the planetary names. 

The Church designated Sunday ‘Lord’s Day’ (dies dominicus), called Saturday the sabbath (sabbatum), and numbered the weekdays from 2 to 6.  Except in Portugal, however, the numbered weekdays never replaced the planetary days in popular usage.  Everyday people in southern Europe did adopt the Church’s terms for the weekend days.  Northern Europe, largely outside the influence of the Catholic Church, was less affected by this; we retain ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sunday’ in English as a result.

In November and December 2008, you can make for yourself some of the observations that helped astronomers of antiquity imagine the solar system.  The two brightest points of light in the southwest tonight are Venus and Jupiter.  They outshine all stars we ever see at night and are visible even in twilight.  But don’t wait too late; you’ll need to look in the hours right after sundown before the two planets set.  Venus, lower to the horizon, is the brighter of the two.  Its closeness to us and the clouds that cover the whole surface and reflect most sunlight back into space cause Venus to outshine the much larger Jupiter.

Watch as Venus gets closer and closer to Jupiter each night this month.  This is exactly how ancient astronomers could tell that Venus and Jupiter were not stars.  On November 30 and December 1, watch as Venus passes 2 degrees ‘under’ Jupiter.  (The crescent Moon also passes by on these nights).  Imagine ancient Greek astronomers concluding that Venus is closer because it is faster.  Keep watching each night in December as Venus pulls away from Jupiter, getting higher in the dusk sky while Jupiter sinks into the Sun’s glare by early January.  Early astronomers would have seen this as the Sun catching up to Jupiter while Venus pulls away; observations like this account for the Sun’s position in the ancient order of ‘planets’.  Of course, we now know better–the Sun’s apparent motion is really ours.  Earth is going around the far side of the Sun from Jupiter’s position, putting Jupiter behind the Sun as the New Year opens. 

Venus remains an evening star until March 2009.  Compare Venus to the stars around it, and you’ll see it slow down and then move ‘backwards’ towards the Sun’s position each night in March.  That’s because Venus will have come around to our side of the Sun, and will be passing us up on its faster orbit. 

Should you make any of these observations on a Thursday or Friday, you can reflect on why those days have those names.