Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Venus shifts to morning, Chinese New Year approaches

This star map shows the Houston sky at 90 pm CST on January 1, 8 pm CST on January 15, and 7 pm on January 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead.  Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the southeast, with his two dogs behind him.  Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night.  Jupiter, in Gemini, is up all night long in early January.  In the north, the Big Dipper gradually re-enters the evening sky.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 90 pm CST on January 1, 8 pm CST on January 15, and 7 pm on January 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the southeast, with his two dogs behind him. Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night. Jupiter, in Gemini, is up all night long in early January. In the north, the Big Dipper gradually re-enters the evening sky.

This month, Venus shifts from the evening to the morning sky. For the next few days, look for it low in the southwest at dusk. If no buildings or trees block the view, you can still make out Venus in the twilight; it outshines everything in the sky but the Sun and the Moon. Notice how it appears lower on the horizon each night and is soon completely gone.

On Jan. 10, Venus passes between Earth and Sun (“inferior conjunction“), which would normally make it invisible to us. This time, however, Venus passes above the Sun from our perspective, which means the sharp-eyed observers with clear horizons can observe Venus both at dawn and at twilight for a few days around Jan. 10. After this, you can watch Venus emerge in the morning sky, visible in the southeast at dawn.

Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Mercury briefly enters the evening sky this month, right as Venus leaves. Look for it low on the horizon during the last half of January. Although not nearly as bright as Venus, it easily outshines the dim stars near it. Thus, any “star” you see in twilight over the point of sunset late this month is probably Mercury.

Jupiter will remain well placed for evening observing all winter and into the spring (as the Earth passed between it and the Sun on Jan. 5). Look for it in the east at dusk and almost overhead later in the evening.

Mars remains in the morning sky. It continues to brighten a bit in the southwest at dawn.

Saturn has reappeared in the pre-dawn sky. Face south-southeast right before sunup to see it.

In January, the Big Dipper is only partly risen at dusk. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W (or M) shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus in the west at dusk. 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, which contains Jupiter this winter.


Moon Phases in January 2014:

New: Jan. 1, 5:15 a.m.; Jan. 30, 3:40 p.m.
1st Quarter: Jan. 7, 9:40 p.m.
Full: Jan. 15, 10:53 p.m.
Last Quarter: Jan. 23, 11:21 p.m.

At 5:59 a.m. on Sat., Jan. 4, the Earth is as close to the Sun as it will get this year; this is called perihelion. Keep in mind that Earth’s orbit is so close to being a perfect circle that its perihelion distance is 0.98 AU, where 1 AU (astronomical unit) is defined as the average Earth-Sun distance. This 2% difference is too small to influence our seasons; the tilt of the Earth’s axis toward or away from the Sun dominates this small effect. That’s why it’s so cold right now (even here in Houston!) and so hot in July.

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day, the earliest sunset occurred on about December 2, and the latest sunrise will occur January 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit near perihelion. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day at this time of year. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a low path across the sky, which normally dominates in causing earlier sunsets and later sunrises. But the Sun’s apparent path varies very little near the solstice itself, allowing the secondary effect of the Earth being nearer to the Sun to predominate.

For most people, then, (those who witness sunset but sleep through sunrise), days will seem to lengthen much more than they actually are. Early risers, on the other hand, will find sunrise occurs even later than last month, at least until late January.

The New Moon of Jan. 30 is the second New Moon after the winter solstice. It therefore marks Chinese New Year. On this date, the Year of the Snake ends and the Year of the Horse begins.

Visit the HMNS website to see this month’s 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. We’re also hosting telescope classes on Jan. 11, so if you or someone you know received one over the holidays come by and let us help you set it up!

Discovery Dome hits the George Observatory for weekends this summer!

Summers at the George Observatory are about to get a whole lot sweeter.

In addition to our normal (but extraordinary) telescope viewings and astronomy lectures, beginning June 1, we’ll also have our portable planetarium — the Discovery Dome — on-hand Friday and Saturday nights through Aug. 25.

HMNS Outreach Programs: Discovery Dome
This young astronomer loves the Discovery Dome!

Each weekend night — plus member nights and at family events — the Discovery Dome will show one of three rotating shows every half hour: Black Holes, We Choose Space, and Life in the Universe.

Black Holes, narrated by Star Trek: the Next Generation’s John de Lancie, explores the mystifying phenomena of black holes, their origin and the latest scientific knowledge about what exactly black holes are and how we can locate them.

We Choose Space details the real-life adventures of astronauts at the International Space Station and on the Moon during the Kennedy administration.

Life in the Universe brings viewers behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, exploring the planets in our solar system. From the birth and death of stars to the formation of distant galaxies, this show is jam-packed with visuals of the universe.

Tickets are $3 for the Discovery Dome show and $5 for telescope and astronomy lecture tickets. For $10, a package of telescope and astronomy lecture tickets, a Discovery Dome ticket and a pass to HMNS Sugar Land’s permanent exhibits is available.

The Discovery Dome will run Fridays from 7:30 to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 3:30 to 10 p.m.

For more information about programming at the George Observatory and all our great summer events at Brazos Bend State Park, click here!

Go Stargazing! August Edition

Saturn is the only planet visible to the naked eye at night this August.  Face 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.   The ringed planet remains well placed for evening viewing and remains in the night sky until late September 2011.

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Mars and Jupiter are in the pre-dawn sky.  Jupiter, set against a background of very dim stars, dominates the southeastern pre-dawn sky and is due south at dawn by the end of the month.  Mars is dimmer and much lower in the east northeast.  It has fully emerged from the sun’s glare and will brighten slightly each morning. Venus is now out of sight.  Superior conjunction (alignment on the far side of the sun) is on August 16.

The Big Dipper is to the 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 west and southwest at dusk.  Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left.  Meanwhile, the Summer Triangle is approaching the zenith.  The stars of summer now dominate the evening sky.  In late evening, you can watch the Great Square of Pegasus rise in the east.

Moon Phases in August 2011:

1st Quarter                     August 6, 6:08 a.m.

Full Moon                       August 13, 1:57 p.m.

Last Quarter                  August 21, 4:56 a.m.

New Moon                      August 28, 10:03 p.m.

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks this year on Saturday morning, August 13.  Unfortunately, the moon (full on the 13th) hides all but the very brightest meteors and thus spoils the show.  If you want to see just how many Perseids can outshine the moonlight, the best hours are from roughly 2 a.m. to dawn.

Go Stargazing! July Edition

Saturn is the only planet visible to the naked eye in the evening skies of July, 2011.  Face south-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.   The ringed planet remains well placed for evening viewing, and remains in the evening sky until late September 2011.

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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, and will brighten slightly each morning.  Venus is now out of sight, as it is passing around the far side of the sun from our perspective.

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 southwest at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it.  The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast.  The stars of summer now dominate the evening sky.

Moon Phases in July 2011:

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

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

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

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

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bruce McKay~YSP

The new moon of July 1 partially blocks the sun, but only as seen from the Antarctic.  No one will get to see a total eclipse because the moon’s full shadow, or umbra, passes just below the Earth.

As we celebrate our independence this July 4, Earth will be at aphelion (at its greatest distance from the sun).  The precise time is 10 a.m.  Perihelion, the Earth’s closest approach to the sun, occurs in January.  Earth has perihelion and aphelion because its orbit is not a circle but an ellipse with an eccentricity (out-of-roundness) of about 1.6%.  Such a small variation, however, exerts no significant influence on our seasons, as you can determine for yourself by stepping outside.  The 23.5 degree tilt of Earth’s axis, on the other hand, is a much more dominant effect.  The very high midday sun of July ensures long days and baking heat in Houston and across much of the Northern Hemisphere.

By popular demand, our George Observatory will open to the public Fridays and Saturdays this summer (except July 8, due to a prior booking).  The Discovery Dome, our traveling planetarium, will be set up each of these Fridays to show films throughout the evening.