Go Stargazing! April Edition

Saturn, up all night long last month, can now be found in the east southeast at dusk.  We are seeing its rings a little more edge on than earlier in the year, an effect that gets even more pronounced next month.

Venus keeps getting higher in the evening sky during the month of April.  Face west at dusk and look for a point of light that outshines everything in the sky. As April opens, Venus has a companion; the elusive Mercury is to its lower right.  Normally too close to the sun to appear in our night sky, Mercury has come from behind the sun and appears far enough to its side that we can still see it just after sunset. Mercury’s greatest elongation (apparent distance from the sun) occurs on April 8.  After that date, we see Mercury return towards the sun’s glare.

Mars is very high in the evening sky, although not as bright as it was in winter.  Since Jan. 29, the Earth has been pulling ahead of Mars on its faster orbit.  As a result, Mars gets slightly dimmer each night for the rest of 2010.  However, during April, Mars remains brighter than average and thus remains easy to see.  Look high in the south at dusk for a reddish point of light.

Jupiter is low in the southeast at dawn this month.  Look for it low in twilight as day begins to break.  It will be higher in the southeast by the end of the month.

Johannes Hevelius drew the Orion constellation
in Uranographia, his celestial catalogue in 1690

Now that the winter is over, the winter stars have shifted to the west.  Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest.  His belt points right to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull.  The Dog Stars Sirius and Procyon are to Orion’s left.  Sirius is the brightest star we ever see at night.  Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left.  Look for two stars of equal brightness less than 5 degrees (three fingers at arms’ length) apart.  These are Castor and Pollux, marking the twins’ heads.  High in the northwest is Capella, the sixth brightest star ever seen at night.

Meanwhile, the spring stars are high in the east.  A distinct backwards question mark shape outlines the mane and forepaws of Leo, the Lion.  Three stars forming a right triangle rise underneath; they mark Leo’s hindquarters.  The Big Dipper is high in the northeast at dusk. If you have a clear eastern horizon, you can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica.’  These stars are along the eastern horizon by dusk tonight.

Star Cloud Over Saskatchewan.jpg
Creative Commons License photo credit: Space Ritual

The large contrast between the bright winter stars in the west at nightfall and the dimmer spring stars in the east arises because of the shape of our Milky Way. The Galaxy is a barred spiral much thinner than it is wide across. Thus, most stars are near the plane of the galaxy.  Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and the Dogs are near the galactic plane, while Arcturus and the stars of Leo and Virgo are far above it.

Moon Phases in April 2010:

Last Quarter                  April 6, 4:37 a.m.

New Moon                      April 14, 7:30 a.m.

1st Quarter                     April 21, 1:19 p.m.

Full Moon                       April 28, 7:18 p.m.

Webisode: Space Glasses! [Hubble 3D]

For nearly 20 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has dazzled us with unprecedented views of the cosmos—from the splendor of our celestial neighborhood to galaxies billions of light years away. A new IMAX film, Hubble 3D is blasting off at HMNS on Mar. 19. Be sure to look at some of the amazing photos of the universe around us, courtesy of NASA.

Hubble 3D will transport you to galaxies that are 13 billion light years away, back to the edge of time.

Just can’t wait until March 19? Never fear – IMAX is releasing webisodes from the production of the film, and we’ll be featuring them here on the blog.

In the first webisode, find out what happens when you launch a billion dollar telescope with an off-kilter lens – and just how delicate this spectacular instrument really is. In this behind the scenes interview, astronaut Mike Massimino talks about his space mission to repair the Hubble Telescope in May of 2009.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it.

Check back here for exclusive videos and more behind the scenes interviews before and after the launch of Hubble 3D in IMAX.

Is anyone else out there? [Life in the Universe]

Are we alone in the universe? Is there intelligent life out there?

If you escape from the city lights and stare up at the night sky, you will see hundreds of stars. With a telescope you can see thousands, and with the help of the Hubble and computers we can see millions of stars.

Our sun has eight (nine if you’re sentimental like me) planets circling it. Not every star is going to have planets, but others will have multiple. How many million of unexplored planets are there out in the universe? Also remember that most of the stars we can see are located within our own galaxy, and that there are countless other galaxies with countless other stars and planets.

With so many billions of planets and moons, I personally believe there is at least some form of life out there in the universe. And although these may just be simple life forms, there is also a good chance that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe.

For those of you who stare up at the night sky and wonder about the universe, we have a new planetarium show just for you, opening today.

Life in the Universe first explores our own solar system and discusses the possibility and likelihood of whether there could be simple life hidden somewhere beneath the surface of a planet or moon. Second, it delves into the galaxy and universe around us, discussing whether or not we might be alone in the universe, and why we haven’t been able to find anyone else so far.

For those of you who are interested in whether or not little green men might soon invade, or just want to learn more about the solar system, the galaxy and the universe that we live in, come on down to the Burke Baker Planetarium and check out Life in the Universe.

2009: International Year of Astronomy

Creative Commons License photo credit: judepics

We could say that modern astronomy began in 1609.  That was the year when the telescope, invented by the Dutch in 1608, was first used to observe and describe celestial objects.  Until telescopes were used, astronomy was primarily about measuring the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets in the sky.  This helped early astronomers make calendars and to plan their harvests, but people were unable to study the celestial bodies and learn their characteristics.  A recently discovered lunar map indicates that Thomas Harriot of England was the first to observe and draw a magnified image of the Moon in July 1609. 

Galileo Galilei, of course, is most well-known for building and using early telescopes.  He did his lunar observations in December 1609 while observing from Padua, Italy.   The prevailing idea at the time was that everything in the heavens had to be perfect and unblemished.  Drawings of mountains, valleys, and craters on the Moon contradicted this idea, showing the Moon to be an ‘imperfect’ world like Earth.  As Galileo published his drawings and Harriot did not, Galileo gets the credit for changing our concept of the universe, helping us realize that celestial bodies are worlds and not just sources of light.

On January 9, 1610, Galileo saw three ‘fixed stars’ next to Jupiter.  Four days later he discovered a fourth and realized that these ‘stars’ orbited Jupiter.  Today, those four moons– Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, are called the Galilean moons.  The direct observation of moons orbiting Jupiter disproved Claudius Ptolemy‘s model of the universe, already centuries old at the time, which held that all bodies in the universe orbited the Earth.

Moon n Venus played hide-and-seek
Creative Commons License photo credit: voobie

In December 1610, Galileo observed Venus and saw that Venus showed phases like the Moon’s when magnified in his telescope.  This meant that sometimes the sunlit side of Venus faces Earth, while at other times we see the night side, although Venus is never opposite the Sun in the sky.  This could happen only if Venus orbits the Sun rather than Earth.

By the way, Galileo did far more than just astronomy.  Rice University’s Galileo Project has more on his extraordinary life, including a timeline.

It was also in 1609 that Johannes Kepler published his New Astronomy, containing his first two laws.  The first law states that each planet’s orbit is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle.  The second law states that a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.  Kepler published his third law, which relates the square of a planets period (time for one orbit) to the cube of its average distance, in 1619. 

This makes 2009 the 400th year of modern astronomy.  Appropriately, the United Nations declared this year to be the International Year of Astronomy.  At that link, you can learn about events taking place all over the world promoted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Their goal is for people all over the world to discover the wonders of the sky and to appreciate our place in the universe.

Star Cloud Over Saskatchewan.jpg
Creative Commons License photo credit: Space Ritual

You can participate in the International Year of Astronomy right here in Houston.  Several of the Fun Hundred events we’ve set up to celebrate our 100th anniversary are astronomy-related.  They include Sun-Earth Day at the vernal equinox, our annual viewing of the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August, members nights at the George Observatory, and a winter solstice event on our sundial. 

Also, you can observe the phases of Venus in the first three months of this year, just as Galileo did through his telescope.  Keep in mind that Galileo’s telescope looked like this; anyone with a good pair of binoculars has better observing equipment.  Go outside at dusk and look west southwest for the brightest point of light in the sky.  That is Venus.  Through a telescope, you’ll notice that Venus appears half-lit in mid-January 2009.  As you keep observing through March, you’ll see Venus become a more and more pronounced crescent.  This is because Venus is coming around to our side of the Sun and thus turning more and more of its night side to Earth.  The very skinny crescent of mid-March is so pronounced that it is noticeable in binoculars.

Remember, the great discoveries, or aha moments, as my co-blogger described, are not limited to great, historic scientists.  The beauty of science is that anyone who takes the time to observe can share in the act of discovery.