The stars at night are big and bright, deep in . . . New Zealand?

Editor’s note: This blog is one of a series of travelogues by HMNS VP of Astronomy Carolyn Sumners, sent from the two-week solar eclipse viewing trip she led to the South Pacific. Astrophotography by Gary Young.

The stars of the southern hemisphere are fantastic, with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from near the hunter, Orion, in the North to Crux, the Southern Cross, in the South.

This predawn image is a time exposure with a Canon Mark II camera and a fisheye lens, taken from our hotel lawn in Queenstown, New Zealand, looking out over Lake Wakatipu. Even with some glare from the hotel and from Queenstown to the East, the predawn sky is remarkably dark. This exposure approximates what we could see as we faced south.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersNew Zealand has a total population less than 5 million, which guarantees much less light pollution, even close to a city. Also, the southern Milky Way is much richer and more easily seen than the Milky Way near the North Star.  In New Zealand, we trade views of the Big and Little Bears for the Southern Cross and the nebulae around it. This image is a close-up of the southern Milky Way in the early evening as we started stargazing. Notice the dark areas in the Milky Way. The Inca saw animals in these dark dust clouds.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersWhile observing through two telescopes, we placed our third telescope, a Takahashi FS60Q, on a small portable Sky Patrol equatorial mount that would track the stars — adjusting for the Earth’s rotation. We were able to do time exposures of up to a minute without guidance and we captured incredible views of the Orion Nebula, the Omega Centauri globular cluster, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Carina Nebula.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Through a telescope we saw the shapes of these clouds and clusters, but not the rich colors and textures captured in these images. The Orion Nebula is a stellar birth cloud with new stars still forming from the gas and dust. The Carina region has young stars and the dying supergiant Eta Carinae.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Eta Carinae nebula

Omega Centauri is the brightest globular cluster in Earth skies with 5 million stars. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy. We can see the Orion Nebula easily from Houston. The other magnificent objects are best seen from below Earth’s equator.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Orion Nebula

It’s a wonderful sky down under.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: June 2012

Mars remains an evening object this month. Face south at dusk and look for a reddish star to the left of Regulus in Leo. However, Mars continues to fade a little bit each night as Earth pulls away from it. This summer, you can watch Mars quickly approach Saturn, which it will pass on August 15.

Saturn is now in the south at dusk this month. Saturn is just above the star Spica in Virgo.

Meanwhile, Jupiter emerges into the morning sky. Look for it low in the east/northeast at dawn; it outshines all stars in that direction.

sky map june 2012

Venus joins Jupiter in the morning sky by late June.  On June 5, Venus passes directly in front of — or transits — the Sun (see below). In the weeks after that, Venus shifts into the morning sky as it pulls ahead on its faster orbit.  The emergence of Venus into the morning sky is quite dramatic — the brightest celestial object aside from the Sun and Moon is noticeably higher each morning. By June 30, Venus will be close to Jupiter at dawn.

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 south at dusk. Leo the Lion is high in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the “teapot” of Sagittarius rising behind it.  The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast; the stars of summer are here.

Mercury takes Venus’ place as an evening star during June. Having just emerged from behind the Sun, Mercury enters the western sky at dusk, where it remains for the rest of the month.  Of course, Mercury is not nearly as bright as Venus, but it still outshines most stars.  Watch the sunset, then look for the brightest “star” in western twilight.  This is Mercury.  In July, it fades and leaves the evening sky.

Like last year, George Observatory opens to the public on Friday nights as well as Saturday nights during the summer.  Also, we’re adding a special “Sun-day” program on Sunday afternoons beginning June 10 that will feature solar observing on sunny days and Sun-related Discovery Dome shows if cloudy!

Moon Phases in June 2012:
Full                               June 4, 6:11 a.m.
Last Quarter                  June 11, 5:42 a.m.
New                              June 19, 10:02 a.m.
1st Quarter                     June 27, 10:29 p.m.

On Tuesday, June 5, Venus passes between Earth and Sun, and is not up at night. This happens every 584 days, and is normally no big deal. This time, however, the alignment is exact, and we can see Venus transit the Sun.  You can come observe this event at any of our three museum facilities.

Transit of Venus at HMNS

At 6:07 pm on Wednesday, June 20, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer — the farthest point north where this is possible. This means the Earth’s North Pole is tilted towards the Sun as much as possible. Therefore, this date is the summer solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, we have more daylight and less night than on any other date.

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.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

Go Stargazing! September Edition

Saturn leaves the evening sky in September 2011.  Face west 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.

Each night this month, however, Saturn and Spica appear lower and lower to the horizon, until they set in twilight by mid-month.  When is the last night you can still see it?  Next month, Saturn is behind the Sun and invisible.

A Long Night Falls Over Saturn's Rings
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Jupiter is now a late evening object.  It rises before 10:45 pm on September 1, and just after 8:30 pm by September 30.  Face east at the appropriate time and look for the brightest thing there—that’ll be Jupiter.   The King of Planets continues to dominate the southwestern pre-dawn sky.  Mars is now a bit higher in the east at dawn.  Although it has brightened, many of the stars in the morning sky outshine it.  However, as it moves from Gemini into dimmer Cancer, Mars is quite identifiable.  Venus was behind the Sun last month, and is still lost in the Sun’s glare.

Io Close-Up with New L8 Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: FlyingSinger

The Big Dipper is beginning to pass under the North Star; Houstonians now need a clear northwestern horizon to see it at dusk.  From its handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars set in the west and southwest at dusk.  Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left.  Meanwhile, the Summer Triangle is virtually overhead.  The stars of summer now dominate the evening sky.  In late evening, you can watch the Great Square of Pegasus rise in the east.  Note that we look towards the center of our galaxy when we face between Scorpius and Sagittarius.  When facing the Great Square or especially south and east of that, we face out of the plane of our galaxy, a direction where there are fewer bright stars.  That’s why the large expanse of sky rising under Pegasus seems devoid of bright stars.

Moon Phases in September 2011:
First Quarter September 4, 12:39 pm
Full September 12, 4:26 pm
Last Quarter September 20, 8:39 am
New September 27, 6:08 pm

Autumnal Equinox

At 4:06 am CDT on Friday, September 23, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  This, then, is the autumnal equinox, a date when everyone in the world has the same amount of sunlight.  In the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve seen the days get a little shorter and the midday Sun a little lower each day since June 21.  For us, the season changes from summer to fall at the equinox.

In the Southern Hemisphere, people have seen the days lengthen and the midday Sun get a little higher each day since June.  For them, the season changes from winter to spring.

Rosh Hashanah

The New Moon of September 27 is the one closest to the fall equinox and therefore marks the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah is not on the New Moon itself but two days later on the 29th, when the slender crescent becomes visible in the west at dusk.

Astronomy Day 2011 at the George Observatory

Come join us anytime from 3 to 10 pm on October 8 for our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory. Dozens of telescopes—including our large research telescopes—will be available to give everyone a chance to enjoy the delights of the night sky, including star clusters, planets and galaxies.  Before dusk, we will have solar observing, Challenger Center simulations, outdoor and indoor presentations (beginning at 4) and many other activities!

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.