Seeing Stars with James Wooten: The Stars of Summer are Here

The Summer Triangle is high in the east.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest.  Venus now moves away from Jupiter as they both gradually become lost in the Sun’s glare

The Summer Triangle is high in the east. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west. From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest. Venus now moves away from Jupiter as they both gradually become lost in the Sun’s glare

This is the last month to observe the two brightest planets in the western evening sky. On June 30, Venus overtook Jupiter. This month, watch Venus shift to the left of Jupiter each evening at dusk. Meanwhile, both planets appear lower and lower to the horizon each night, until they are both lost in the Sun’s glare by the end of the month. At dusk, look over the point of sunset for the brightest objects there; Venus and Jupiter outshine everything but the Sun and the Moon.

Saturn is now in the southern sky at dusk. Although it is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, it outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see.

Mars remains lost in the glare of the Sun.

The Big Dipper is above and 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 southwest at dusk. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.


Moon Phases in July 2015:

Full July 1, 9:20 pm; July 31, 5:43 am
Last Quarter July 8, 3:24 pm
New July 15, 8:24 pm
1st Quarter July 23, 11:04 pm

At 2:41 pm on Monday, July 6, Earth is as far from the Sun as it will get this year, a moment known as aphelion. Remember, though, that the difference between aphelion and perihelion (in January) is small (only about 3%). Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt on its axis is a much more important effect. That’s why we have all this miserable heat and humidity now, rather than in January.

Just before 6:50 am CDT on Tuesday, July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach to Pluto. As this is our first opportunity ever to gather real data from Pluto and its moons, astronomers are quite excited. The craft is already close enough to take some pictures, which you can see here. The Museum will have special activities for this occasion; email me if you want more information.

The Full Moon of July 31 is the second one of the month. That’s one of the definitions of a Blue Moon.

Planetarium Schedule:

Brazos Bend State Park, where our George Observatory is sited, has been closed since May 27 because the rains of Memorial Day and of Tropical Storm Bill caused the Brazos to overflow. The park plans to reopen on a limited basis July 8, making July 11 the first Saturday available for public observing.

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. I generally do one such tour on short June evenings.

Saturday’s the Summer Solstice: Five signs we’ve reached (another) Houston summer

Saturday’s the official beginning of summer! The day with the most sunlight (in the northern hemisphere), we’re now in the time of short shorts, trips to the beach, ice cream and vacations (and our Mixers & Elixirs Summer Solstice Party).

But summer in Houston is unique. We certainly know how to have a good time, but the weather doesn’t always make that easy. Here are five signs that we’ve reached summer in Houston:


The humidity in Houston is nothing to scoff at. Seriously. Stepping outside now feels like stepping into a hot mouth — or like you’re swimming, except you’re overheating.


Seriously, try and stay cool folks. Heat stroke is a real problem for Houstonians, especially for those on the younger or older ends of the age spectrum from June until August. Here are some helpful tips to keep cool.


Again, AIR CONDITIONING = LIFE. However, this means your electric bill will almost certainly be the highest it’s been all year, especially if you’re using window units. Here are a few ways to be more efficient and lessen the impact


We’re no strangers to sunlight, but it just. gets. so. intense. Keep an extra pair in your car (you’ll be glad that first time you forget). Besides being able to see on the road, you’ll want them on whenever you’re outside to help fight against skin cancer, cataracts and macular degeneration


It’s just too hot to wear any more clothing than you need to remain decent in public. Besides, sweating is your natural way to keep cool. Don’t let fabric get in between you and comfort.

Now for some sweet relief: you can always come visit us and enjoy our cool exhibits away from the summer sun! So what are you waiting for?! 

And of course, you can beat the heat with Mixers & Elixirs this Saturday, June 21 at our Summer Solstice Party. Because when the Houston heat and HMNS coolness come together, things are bound to get steamy — the good kind.

A Trick or a Treat?

In less than a week, people all over the country, including right here at our museum, will be celebrating Halloween. Perhaps your workplaces and schools are already festooned with ghosts, skeletons, graveyards, and the like.  If you stop and think about it, you may wonder just how it is that we came to celebrate by trying to disguise ourselves or by trying to frighten people.  Is this a trick or a treat?

Picket fence and yellow trees
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

The short answer as to why we celebrate this time of year with images of death is that we are in the middle of autumn, the season when nature itself is dying.  To fully understand why we celebrate Halloween when we do, we must fully understand the seasons.

Earth orbits the Sun with its axis pointed at the North Star, Polaris. As a result, its axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital plane.  This tilt, combined with Earth’s revolution around the Sun, causes the seasons.  If the North Pole leans towards the Sun, the Sun is higher in our sky and we get more direct sunlight.  Also, daytime is longer than nighttime.  As the North Pole begins to tilt away fron the Sun, the Sun appears lower and lower across the sky, and daytime gets shorter and shorter.  Eventually, the slanted-in solar rays and short days bring about winter.  Very cold air masses form in the darkened Arctic and begin to move south, some of which can even reach Houston.

Keep in mind that the Earth’s axis does not tilt back and forth; it points at Polaris the whole time.  In June, the North Pole is leaning towards the Sun, but by December, the Earth’s motion has carried it to the other side of the Sun.  The North Pole, still tilting the same way, now leans away from the Sun.

A common misconception is that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and more distant in winter, and that is what causes our seasons.  In fact, Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurs just after the new year (January 1-4), while aphelion (greatest distance from the Sun) occurs around the 4th of July.  Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, but the Earth-Sun distance does not change by enough to affect our seasons.

where are you?
Creative Commons License photo credit: shioshvili

In the cycle of seasons, there are four points of note.  At the March equinox, neither pole is tilted toward the Sun and the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  The is the vernal (spring) equinox for us and the autumnal (fall) equinox for folks south of the equator.  At the June solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible towards the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees North (the Tropic of Cancer).  This is the summer solstice for us and the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  At the September equinox, once again neither pole tilts toward the Sun, and the Sun is again overhead at the equator.  This is our fall equinox and their spring equinox.  At the December solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible away from the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees South (the Tropic of Capricorn).  This is the winter solstice for us and the summer solstice below the equator. 

We generally think of these points as the beginning of spring, summer, fall, and winter, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  After all, nothing magically happens with our weather on these dates.  We could just as well consider these points the midpoints of each season.  In that case, the seasons would begin and end at points roughly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, in early February, May, August, and November.  If the equinoxes and solstices are ‘quarter days,’ the points halfway between them become the ‘cross-quarter days.’

The ancient Celts of Europe appear to have divided their year in precisely that way.  Gauls living in what is now France used a calendar of twelve lunar months with a 13th month added every 2.5 years (similar to the Hebrew calendar today).  Their two most significant months were Gamonios (lunar month corresponding to April/May ), which began the summer half of the year, and Samonios (lunar month corresponding to October/November) which began the winter half of the year.  Julius Caesar noted that daytime followed nighttime in Celtic days.  By extension, the dark (winter) half of the Celtic year preceded the light (summer) half, making Samonios the start of their new year.

The Celts in the British Isles (Irish and Scots) also had festivals aligned with the cross-quarter days.  In early February was Imbolc (or St. Brigid’s day).  Weather predicting traditions of this day are preserved in our current Groundhog Day.  Traditional May Day celebrations are similar to those of the Celtic BeltaneLughnasadh, in early August, marked the start of the harvest. 

'' The Sentiment of Light''
Creative Commons License photo credit: jdl_deleon

The most important, though, was Samhain (pronounced ’sah win’, not ‘Sam Hane’, due to rules of Gaelic spelling), in early November.  This three-day festival marked the beginning of the winter half of the year and the start of the whole year, like Gaulish Samonios.  It was the close of the harvest opened at Lughnasagh, and the time for culling excess livestock.  At this time, the veil between the living and the world of the dead was considered thinner than usual, and people looked forward to meeting and communing with ancestors and relatives who had died.  A ‘dumb supper‘ was set aside for departed relatives.  To scare away unwanted spirits, people dressed in frightening garb.  Note that these spirits were considered unpredictable and possibly mischievous because they were not the familiar ancestors–not because they were particularly evil.  Divination was also practiced at this time, as people sought to predict whom they would marry or how many children they would have. 

Doing the math, you’ve probably figured out that Halloween is not quite halfway from the equinox (September 22) to the solstice (December 21).  But remember, the Celts used a lunar calendar.  They celebrated their festivals on a certain phase of the Moon, possibly full moon, occurring nearest the cross-quarter day.  Upon the adoption of the Julian calendar, which was not strictly lunar, the festivals were moved to the beginning of February, May, August, and November, although this meant they were no longer exactly on the cross-quarter days. 

Creative Commons License photo credit:
The Wandering Angel

In the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III moved the church’s commemoration of the souls in heaven (All Saints’ Day) from May 13 to November 1.  Another name for All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Day.  (’Hallow’ is an older term for ’sanctify’ or ‘make holy.’  Think of ‘…hallowed be thy name’ from the Lord’s Prayer).  The next day became All Souls’ Day.  The day before All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  The traditions of Samhain, with its similar focus on honoring the dearly departed, were a natural fit for All Hallows Day and All Hallows Eve.

Halloween, then, is ultimately just one expression of the human need to come to terms with death as a natural occurence and to honor those who have gone before.  In the season of the fall of the leaf, with the Sun taking a slightly lower path across the sky each day, the natural world is going through its own ‘death,’ providing a perfect context for our own activities.  We can therefore think of Halloween itself as a treat, not a trick.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween, with many more treats than tricks.

Summer Encounters – Brazos Bend State Park

Oak tree

Welcoming Oak Tree

Last summer I was introduced to Brazos Bend State Park. I found many amazing animals living amongst the tall swamp reeds and old oak trees. Recently, I spent a weekend down there camping with my family. I’d like to share some of the beautiful animals we encountered on this visit.

Now, like many people, I’m not particularly fond of certain small, creepy-crawlies, including my least favorite: ticks! Unfortunately (and much to my dismay) I was feasted upon by one tiny tick. However, when I was given an opportunity to watch a spider feast upon its own meal, I didn’t feel the same distress. Near our campsite, there were plenty of enormous spiders for us to observe. I was astounded by the size and beauty of the Golden Silk Spider, Nephila clavipes, often called the Banana Spider.

Golden Silk Spider

Golden Silk Spider

She is relatively harmless to humans, but has an impressive web and can take down dragonflies. This species are also a cannibalistic species, preying upon their own kind. The males live on the backside of the web from the female, risking their lives to mate when the time is right. I witnessed a large female dining on a smaller female early one morning. Apparently, it is not such a good idea to build your web directly in front of a larger, hungrier silk spider! If you look closely at the photo to the right, you may be able to see the much smaller male sitting a couple of inches to the left of the female.

As a side note, I learned that another spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, is also often called a Banana Spider. This spider can be fatal to humans and should not be taken lightly.

Another favorite invertebrate that I was able to find at Brazos Bend State Park is the firefly (not to be confused with the excellent, but short TV series Firefly), also known as lightning bugs. Last summer was the first time I had ever seen them and I was still very excited when I saw them again this summer. I also managed to catch one and study it up close, watching as the abdomen slowly glowed on and off. These beetles use their bioluminescence to communicate with each other. Each species of firefly has their own, distinct pattern they flash to attract a mate. The male flashes his pattern while flying around, hoping to find a female responding to his light with her own light show. However, some females will mimic the pattern of another species in order to catch their dinner!

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug

While walking around Elm lake, you can’t help but notice all of the beautiful water birds. They share the lake with the alligators, seemingly unaware of the dark eyes resting at the edge of the water’s surface. During the summer, you can easily spot pairs of white ibises, egrets & herons, common moorhens, black-bellied whistling ducks, and on occasion you may spot an osprey or wood stork. Below, I’ve posted a photo of a Green Heron, Butorides virescens, looking for his lunch amongst all of the duckweed. Green Herons typically hunt small aquatic animals including invertebrates, small fish, & frogs. It has been known to “bait” for fish, dropping a small item on the surface of the water and waiting to catch the fish attracted to the lure.

Green Heron

Green Heron

The last animal I want to bring up from my encounters at Brazos Bend State Park is the Nine-Banded Armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus. We were hiking on a path near the George Observatory while we waited to buy tickets to look through the telescopes later that evening. My well-trained ears told me there was an animal moving about in the underbrush nearby. I turned to look and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my first armadillo! The novelty of this new mammal had me snapping pictures left and right, spending a good 20 minutes observing its search for food.

Nine Banded Armadillo

Nine-Banded Armadillo

Eventually, my dogs noticed this new creature and started barking. By this time, the armadillo had meandered right near the path and upon being frightened by the dogs, he did an about-face and nearly ran straight into my friend’s legs! He eventually found his way back to the denser foliage and continued foraging for lunch. After this first encounter, we later came across 4 more juveniles, these were much quicker to run away from us than the first adult we observed.

The nine-banded armadillo may be opportunistic, eating whatever food they come across, but mostly they eat a wide variety of invertebrates: caterpillars, scarab beetles, grubs, termites, & worms. They will also eat carrion and occasionally crustaceans, fruit, reptiles & amphibians. Armadillos are excellent diggers but have poor vision. When frightened, they may jump straight into the air!

Armadillos are capable of crossing water in two interesting ways. In order to get around the problem of their heavy armor, the armadillo can hold its breath and simply walk across the bottom of a body of water. However, they are able to swim by inflating their stomach to offer some bouyancy. Nine-banded armadillos have identical quadruplets around March, the young staying with the mother for several months.

If you would like to see more photos from Brazos Bend State Park, please visit the BBSP Flickr group webpage. You can also find a wide variety of photos from HMNS at their Flickr group page as well. I am still working on updating my own Flickr page with Museum-related photos, but in the meantime, enjoy this one last photo of the largest alligator I’ve seen at Brazos Bend. I was standing directly above him on a dock at Hale lake. My best guess at his length: 12-14 feet long!

Large Alligator

American Alligator