Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Four Planets are Visible

jan star report

Venus is in the southeast at dawn, approaching Saturn. Venus passes Saturn the morning of January 9; the two planets are less than one tenth of one degree apart! They’re easy to tell apart, as Venus outshines all the stars we see at night and is almost 100 times brighter than Saturn.

Mars is now in the south at dawn. Much dimmer than Venus now, Mars is getting a little brighter each day until its opposition next spring.

Jupiter now dominates the southwestern sky at dawn. As Jupiter approaches its opposition on march 8, you can also begin looking for it in late evening. By January 31, for example, Jupiter rises by 9:00 and will have cleared most horizon obstacles by 9:30 or 10.

In January, the Big Dipper is only partly risen at dusk. As the Big Dipper rises, though, Cassiopeia remains high. 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.

Moon Phases
Moon Phases in January 2016:

Last Quarter Jan. 1, 11:30 p.m.; Jan. 31, 9:28 p.m.

New Jan. 9, 7:31 p.m.

1st Quarter Jan. 16, 5:26 p.m.

Full Jan. 23, 7:46 am

At 4:49 pm on Saturday, January 2, the Earth was as close to the Sun as it will get this year. Thus we say that the Earth was at perihelion. However, Earth was only about 1.6% closer to the Sun than average on this date. That’s why being closer to the Sun at this time does little to warm us up. The effect of Earth’s tilt on its axis dominates the small effect of Earth’s varying distance in causing the seasons.

Although the shortest day (least daylight) occurs on December 21, the latest sunrise occurs for us about January 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit as it approaches perihelion. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day for the first part of this month. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a slightly higher path across the sky, which normally dominates in causing later sunsets and earlier 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 until mid-January. Most people, then, will notice that both sunrise and sunset are now happening earlier than in December. As we move farther from the solstice, the effect of the Sun taking a slightly higher path each day again predominates.

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.

Clear Skies!

There’s a Partial Solar Eclipse Happening October 23: Here’s what you need to know to see it!


There’s a partial solar eclipse happening Thursday, October 23 and you can see it all from Houston*!

 The New Moon of Thursday, October 23, 2014, aligns with the Sun and the Earth well enough to cast its shadow towards Earth. However, no one will see a total eclipse for two reasons. First of all, the Moon was at apogee (greatest distance from Earth) on October 18, and is therefore smaller than usual in our sky. As a result, it is not quite big enough to cover the Sun, and the only eclipse possible would be an annular eclipse. Also, the Moon shadow is aligned to a point in space just over the Earth’s upper limb, so nobody will even get to see an annular eclipse. The near miss, however, allows the penumbra, where the Moon partially blocks the Sun, to land on the Earth. With North America near the upper limb of the Earth at the time, Houston will be within the penumbra. Therefore we will see a partial solar eclipse, in which the Moon will cover almost a quarter of the Sun’s disk at most.


At 4:59pm CDT, look for the Moon to take a ‘bite’ out of the Sun’s disk. The Moon covers the northern limb of the Sun, which is the right side of the Sun as it sets in the west. Maximum eclipse, with the Moon covering almost 1/4 of the Sun’s disk, is at 5:58.  At 6:43, the Sun sets while still in partial eclipse. After this, the next partial solar eclipse visible from Houston occurs August 21, 2017. 


Eclipse begins: 4:59 PM, CDT
Mid-eclipse: 5:58 PM
Sunset: 6:43 PM

The Museum’s own George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park will be open to the public from 1:00 -6:00 p.m. on October 23 for observing the Sun and, starting at 5:00, the eclipse.  

*CAUTION: Never look directly at the Sun with the naked eye or through an unfiltered telescope. Permanent eye-damage will result. 

TGIS: The Summer Solstice is cause to celebrate

It’s been a long week, and we know just what we need to kick back: lots and lots of daylight.

So if today feels like it’s been a long day, that’s because it has been. In fact, it’s been the longest day of the year! The sun appears farthest in the north today, making today the Summer Solstice.

TGIS, amirite?

For ancient Egyptians, the Summer Solstice marked the beginning of the Nile’s great flood season. During the Pharaonic Period, the Summer Solstice also coincided with the first appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” which was also recognized as the beginning of the Egyptian New Year.

Happy New Year!

It was a time of major celebration in Egypt, and people were given small
faience water flasks inscribed with a hieroglyphic text that read  “Happy New Year!”

We’ll keep our Gregorian NYE, but we don’t need much reason to celebrate the weekend. Happy Solstice!

Reporting from Down Under: It’s a solar eclipse shark attack in Australia

I had never realized before that a photograph of a partial solar eclipse behind lots of colorful clouds at sunrise looks so much like a shark attack. Especially if you’re watching it over the Pacific Ocean with about 40,000 other people in Cairns, Australia.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

See the fin?

In my nine eclipse expeditions, I have never seen these unique atmospheric conditions before. Traditional knowledge suggests it’s best if your solar eclipse view is cloudless, with the sun’s corona surrounding the moon’s black disk at totality. But if clouds spoil that view, I discovered that dramatic images can hide in the cloud decks, especially if the clouds are thick enough to filter the sun’s light (effective neutral density of four or greater) and allow a camera to capture images without a solar filter. (Safety note: We kept solar filters ready at a moment’s notice if conditions improved. We also viewed only through the LED display of the digital camera, not through the viewfinder.)

The museum’s solar eclipse travelers had a front row seat from the balcony of their rooms on the 11th floor of our Australia hotel. Boats had anchored in the harbor below us, and eclipse watchers camped on the boardwalk by the water. The event became a dynamic interplay of clouds and the partially eclipsed sun. Sunrise began with decks of clouds drifting between the sun and us. We aimed cameras mounted on telescopes to the place where we knew the sun would appear when the clouds parted.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The view from out hotel balcony at 6 a.m., when the sun was just clearing the peninsula’s tallest peaks. The Takahashi FCT-76 is on the left and the FS-60 is on the right, riding on a Sky Patrol equatorial mount.

Rays of sunlight through cloud decks also showed the sun’s location. As the beams moved across the land, we knew it would soon be our turn to see through a tiny thinning of the clouds just before totality. As totality approached, the sky gradually darkened and the temperature dropped. The city lights below us had just turned off at sunrise and now flickered back to life. Flash bulbs blinked over the city as photographers hoped in vain to light a path through the clouds. For the two minutes of totality, the rays of sunlight vanished, the clouds became black shadows and a sunrise glow illuminated the horizon. Then daylight returned, and we looked to see if our cameras had captured anything our eyes had missed. That’s when we discovered the shark fin shapes of the partially eclipsed sun appearing to sail behind a fantastic display of pale hued clouds. Did we have the best view of totality? Maybe not. But in the interplay of thick colorful cloud decks, we were treated to a very rare unfiltered solar eclipse at sunrise.

Photographs tell the story better:

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Here I’m focusing the Celestron 5 telescope. Next to me is the Takahashi FCT-76 and the Takahashi FS-60 is closest to the camera.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:20 a.m., the partially eclipsed sun peeks through the clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The shark’s fin is the sun’s disk, partially covered by the moon and by several banks of Earth clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:25 a.m., totality is just over 10 minutes away. The colors become more dramatic as the sunlight level drops. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The camera cuts off most of this shark fin, but notice the sunrise colors lingering in the clouds. Photography through a Takahashi FCT-76.

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt about 6:30 a.m., the clouds and colors become dramatic as totality nears.
Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length.

Total Eclipse of the HeartFour and a half minutes later, as totality approaches, the clouds darken, with only the closest illuminated by the last rays of the sun’s photosphere and perhaps the first faint glows of the corona. Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt 6:38 a.m., totality began and the clouds obscured the fainter corona. The sky became as dark as a full moon night with sunrise colors streamed across the horizon.