A different kind of New Year’s “resolution”: So you want to be an amateur astronomer

So you want to be an amateur astronomer? Well there’s never been a better time to explore the heavens — from right here on Earth.

Enter the telescope.

Telescopes have been around for quite some time. Invented in 1608 in the Netherlands, the first major discoveries came from Galileo Galilei — using an instrument he built and refined himself. So even from the beginning, space study and exploration had deep roots in the uninitiated who wanted to learn more about the brilliance of the night sky.

Now lucky for you, telescopes have become relatively easy to acquire, so there’s no need to build your own (unless, of course, that’s your jam — in which case, you may want to check out the resources here, here and here). They’re available at many “big box stores,” and, of course, online.

And I’d be willing to bet that many of you received one as gift over the holidays.

So now you have a telescope. It’s been sitting in the box for two weeks. What’s next?

It just so happens that we’re offering telescope classes at the George Observatory on Sat., Jan. 11! Here, an expert can help you set up your scope, polar align it, and make sure you’re ready to start stargazing like never before (click here for more information about our telescope classes).

The other key to making your telescoping adventures a success is knowing what to look for. Once again, you’re in luck. Thanks to the glories of the Internet, you can find a multitude of resources to help.

Here are some of my favorites:

Star Chart
Available for Apple and Android devices, this incredibly user-friendly app allows you to find and learn about constellations/planets/galaxies right on your smart phone — before taking aim with your telescope.

    

 

Astronomy.com
Complete with a 2014 Sky Guide, weekly podcasts, friendly tutorials and more, this site (and magazine) can definitely help you learn your way around the night sky.

 

Reddit
Why not make your hobby a social outlet as well? Connect with other amateur astronomers in your area for tips, social gatherings, interesting news and photos. And for those ambitious enough to want to explore astrophotography, there are resources for you here as well.

 

BEYONDbones, the HMNS Blog
One awesome part about the night sky is that it’s always changing, from season to season. Keep up with what to look for in the sky with monthly blog posts from James Wooten, our Planetarium Astronomer.

Last but not least, you can often get updates and interesting information on NPR, The Huffington Post, and Wiki How.

Now you’ve got all the tools to start exploring the cosmos! Happy stargazing! And don’t forget to check out the resources at your fingertips at the George Observatory.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Comet ISON, Winter Solstice & the Geminid meteor shower

ev.owaThis is it. The final stargazing report of 2013. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Venus remains in the west at dusk for one more month. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight. Shortly after the new year begins, Venus shifts from the evening to the morning sky.

Jupiter will be up literally all night long early next month. In December 2013, then, it is not up at dusk but rises during the evening. Now you can see it rise in the northeast at about 8 p.m., just as Venus sets. By New Year’s Eve, Jupiter rises by 5:50 p.m., during twilight.

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

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

In December, the Big Dipper is below the horizon at dusk. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

The Summer Triangle sets in the west. Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the bull, rises in the east. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the hunter, rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter.

Unfortunately, it appears that Comet ISON did not survive its close passage to the Sun this past Thanksgiving. At 12:48 p.m. CST on Thurs., Nov. 28, ISON passed just 1.7 solar radii above the Sun’s surface. This proved to be too close, as the Sun’s gravity tore ISON apart, causing it to shed much of its gas and dust. This left only a small remaining fragment to continue on ISON’s orbital path, a fragment too small to put on a naked-eye show on December mornings. Binocular observers, though, can still give it a try.

You can still find information showing ISON’s position, or you can view the full path.

If ISON survives perihelion this Thanksgiving (it has about a 50/50 chance), we could see it quite well between Thanksgiving and Christmas. More on this in the December update.

Moon Phases in December 2013:

New: December 2, 6:21 pm
1st Quarter: December 9, 9:12 am
Full: December 17, 3:28 am
Last Quarter: December 25, 7:49 am

At 11:11 a.m. on Sat., Dec. 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south where this is possible. This puts the Sun as low as possible in our sky, and marks the winter solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun is as high as possible in the sky — this is the summer solstice for them.

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day, the earliest sunset occurred on about Dec. 2, and the latest sunrise will occur Jan. 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit as it approaches perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) next month. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day this month and next. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a lower 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 approaching the Sun to predominate. For most people, then, (those who witness sunset but sleep through sunrise), days will seem to lengthen throughout December, although they don’t really begin lengthening until Dec. 21.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this month, as it does every December. Along with the Perseids in August, the Geminids are one of the two most reliable meteor showers, producing on average about 100 meteors per hour. The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This means that with Geminids, we see significant activity much earlier in the night than with other showers.

Most meteor showers peak in the hours immediately before dawn. This is because what plows through the debris field is the leading edge of the Earth, and that’s the side going from night into day. Since Phaethon is an asteroid, however, debris along its orbital path forms a shallower angle to Earth’s orbital path, meaning that we begin to face into the debris field as early as 9 or 10 p.m. Meteors will seem to “radiate” from the constellation Gemini, hence the name of the shower. However, they may appear anywhere in the sky.

As always, you see more meteors the farther you are from big city lights, which hide dimmer ones. Our George Observatory will be open at 5 p.m. on Friday night, Dec. 13, to 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, Dec. 14, for observing this meteor shower.

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.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: the Comet ISON & the end of Daylight Saving Time

Only one more month left in the year!

In November, Venus remains in the west at dusk. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight.

Jupiter is high in the morning sky this month. Look for it high in the west at dawn.

You can also look for Jupiter in the late evening sky in the east. It rises by 11:10 p.m. on November 1, and by 8:10 p.m. on November 30.

Mars, much dimmer than Jupiter, now pulls away from it in the morning sky. It now brightens a bit in the east at dawn.

Saturn is behind the Sun (at conjunction) on November 6, and thus out of sight most of the month. By Thanksgiving, you can try finding it low in the southeast at dawn.

november2013

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on November 1, 8 p.m. CST on November 15, and 7 p.m. on November 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest, with Venus to its right. Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is high in the east. To the south and east, we see a vast dim area of stars known as the “Celestial Sea,” where only Fomalhaut stands out.

This month, the Big Dipper is to the lower left of the North Star at dusk, and soon sets. As a result, it may be hard to see if you have trees or buildings north of you. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Perhaps the most significant sight in our skies this month will be Comet ISON. That’s perhaps because ISON has never been in the inner solar system before and will never come back, so astronomers are unsure how it will behave.

There is some optimism, however, that ISON will brighten enough to be visible to the naked eye as it approaches the Sun this Thanksgiving Day. On Thanksgiving, when ISON is at its brightest, it will be too close to the Sun to observe. But you might notice it low in the southeast at dawn in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Day. You’ll be looking for a dim, diffuse object, so you’ll want to pick a site far from city lights and a morning with little or no moonlight. ISON passes close to the Star Spica on November 17.

With the help of the Internet, you can track ISON’s position, or view ISON’s full path.

If ISON survives perihelion this Thanksgiving (it has about a 50/50 chance), we could see it quite well between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll have more on this in the December update.

Moon Phases in November 2013:
New:  November 3, 6:48 am
1st Quarter:  November 9, 11:58 pm
Full:  November 17, 9:15 pm
Last Quarter:  November 25, 1:29 pm

Sunday, November 3, is the first Sunday of the month. Accordingly, Daylight Saving Time ends at 2 a.m. that morning. (At 2 a.m., the time reverts to 1 a.m., such that the 1 a.m. hour happens twice). Remember to set all clocks back one hour on Saturday night, November 2, and enjoy your extra hour of sleep!

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.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: October’s “intermission” in the sky & Astronomy Day

The night sky in October is full of comings … and goings.

october131

Venus remains in the west at dusk. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight.

Saturn leaves the evening sky this month. For the first few days of October, you can look for it in evening twilight to the lower right of Venus. After mid-month, though, it’s hard to see. Saturn is behind the Sun (at conjunction) on Nov. 6.

Jupiter is higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it high in the south at dawn.

Mars, much dimmer than Jupiter, now pulls away from it in the morning sky. It remains in the east at dawn. On the morning of Oct. 15, look for it near Regulus in Leo.

In October, the Big Dipper is to the lower left of the North Star at dusk, and soon sets. As a result, it may be hard to see if you have trees or buildings north of you.  As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape, which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Autumn represents sort of an “intermission” in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter stars have not yet risen. The “teapot” of Sagittarius sets in the southwest at dusk. The Summer Triangle is high in the west.  Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is in the east, indicating the start of autumn. 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.

october13Moon Phases in October 2013:

New                         October 4, 7:33 p.m.

1st Quarter              October 11, 6:03 p.m.

Full                           October 18, 6:36 p.m.

Last Quarter            October 26, 6:41 p.m.

The full moon of Oct. 18 enters the penumbra, a region in which Earth partially blocks the Sun. Unlike the full shadow (umbra), however, the penumbra only imperceptibly darkens the Moon.

Sat., Oct. 12, is our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory, which lasts from 3 to 10 p.m. at our observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. See here for a full list of activities.

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.