Don’t Miss the Parade of Planets

We get a rare treat in the pre-dawn sky in late January 2016 as the planets Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter form a parade, of sorts, across the sky!  These planets are easy to spot — no telescope required.

Parade of planets

The pre-dawn sky, looking south

If you’re in the northern hemisphere of Earth, wake up a little early and face south-southeast to view these four planets.  Toward the end of January the planet Mercury joins the parade when it becomes visible just over the eastern horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Love is in the stars!

Part 1 of a two-part series

Love is in the stars in this month’s selection of beautiful space images!  Enjoy!

Heart of the Milky Way

Credit: ESO/J. Girard (

There is a lot to love about astronomy, and — in time for Valentine’s Day — photographer Julien Girard offers a “heartfelt” example in this image. A bright pink symbol of love appears to float ethereally against the backdrop of the night sky over the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. Girard drew the heart in the air by shining a tiny flashlight keychain at the camera during a 25-second exposure with a tripod.

The central region of the Milky Way appears in the middle of the heart, as the plane of our galaxy stretches across the image. The stars of the constellation of Corona Australis (The Southern Crown) form a glittering arc of jewels at the top of the heart’s left lobe. The diffuse glow to the left of the heart’s lowest point is zodiacal light, caused by the scattering of light from the Sun by dust particles in the Solar System.

On the far right horizon, the 8.2-metre telescopes of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility stand out in silhouette atop Cerro Paranal. The lights of a car driving down from the observatory platform can be seen just to the left of the telescopes.

Julien Girard is an ESO astronomer based in Chile, who works at the Ver Large Telescope (VLT). He is the instrument scientist for the NACO adaptive optics instrument on the VLT’s Unit Telescope 4. He submitted this photograph to the Your ESO Pictures Flickr group, from where it was picked out as an ESO Picture of the Week.

Antenna Galaxies

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: B. Whitmore ( Space Telescope Science Institute) and James Long (ESA/Hubble).

Colliding galaxies make love, not war

This Hubble Space Telescope image of the Antennae galaxies is the sharpest yet of this merging pair of galaxies. As the two galaxies smash together, billions of stars are born, mostly in groups and clusters of stars. The brightest and most compact of these are called super star clusters.

Heart on Mars

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

This picture of a heart-shaped pit on Mars was taken on February 26, 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It is approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long and is centered near Mars’ equator. The pit is one of many adjacent to Hydaspis Chaos, a jumbled topographic depression thought to have formed by collapse of the surface due to—perhaps—catastrophic release of groundwater.

A Valentine's Day asteroid

Credit: NEAR Project (JHU/APL)

Just in time for its Valentine’s Day 2000 date with 433 Eros, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft snapped this photo during its approach to the 21-mile (34 kilometer)-long space rock. Taken Feb. 11, 2000 from 1,609 miles (2,590 kilometers) away, the picture reveals a heart-shaped depression about 3 miles (5 kilometers) long. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory – which manages the NASA mission – processed the image on Feb. 12, 2000.

Top Ten Valentine’s Day Messages

RoseAs you’re thinking about what to get your significant other for Valentine’s Day, you might be interested in some of the Valentine’s Day messages Name A Star Live customers have included on their Star Certificates. Below are some of the best messages we’ve received so far. Of course, we’ve changed the names in the messages to protect the privacy of our customers.  We hope these examples will give you some ideas about what to write for your loved one.  Have a happy Valentine’s Day! Continue reading

The Christmas Tree in Space

Here’s a holiday treat from outer space: The Christmas Tree Cluster!

Imagine the beautiful green, wispy branches of a Christmas tree — adorned with red, blue and white lights — gracefully on display in the heavens above.

The Christmas Tree Cluster

The Christmas Tree Cluster (a.k.a. “NGC 2264″) is located in the constellation Monoceros, near the Name A Star Live constellations Orion and Gemini.

Newborn stars, hidden behind thick dust, are revealed in this image of a section of the Christmas Tree Cluster from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infant stars appear as pink and red specks toward the center and appear to have formed in regularly spaced intervals along linear structures in a configuration that resembles the spokes of a wheel or the pattern of a snowflake. Hence, astronomers have nicknamed this the “Snowflake Cluster.”

Star-forming clouds like this one are dynamic and evolving structures. Since the stars trace the straight line pattern of spokes of a wheel, scientists believe that these are newborn stars, or “protostars.” At a mere 100,000 years old, these infant structures have yet to “crawl” away from their location of birth. Over time, the natural drifting motions of each star will break this order, and the snowflake design will be no more.

Like a dusty cosmic finger pointing up to the newborn clusters, Spitzer also illuminates the optically dark and dense Cone Nebula, the tip of which can be seen towards the upper right corner of the image.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/P.S. Teixeira (Center for Astrophysics)

And here’s some other neat space imagery for you!

ESO Observatory

An outstanding image of the sky over European  Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory.  Image Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (

The object that is glowing intensely red in the image is the Carina Nebula.  The Carina Nebula lies in the constellation of Carina (The Keel), about 7500 light-years from Earth. This cloud of glowing gas and dust is the brightest nebula in the sky and contains several of the brightest and most massive stars known in the Milky Way, such as Eta Carinae. The Carina Nebula is a perfect test-bed for astronomers to unveil the mysteries of the violent birth and death of massive stars.  Click here for more information about this image.

Finally, here is a beautiful video — set to equally beautiful music — showing the night skies over Cornwall and Scilly, in Great Britain.


The Star of Bethlehem

The MagiFor centuries astronomers have speculated about the famous Star of Bethlehem, which the three Magi (the three wise men/the three kings) followed to the place of Christ’s birth.  Of course, the star may defy scientific explanation altogether, and be viewed as a miracle.  Nevertheless, various astronomical theories have been proposed, including that the star may have been a comet, or a supernova (an exploding star), or a “planetary conjunction” (a gathering of planets in one part of the sky).  In this column, we’ll examine two of today’s most popular theories, both of which hold that the planet Jupiter played a key role.

Continue reading

A Stormy Meteor Shower This Month!


Time-lapse photo of a meteor shower. The shooting stars seem to fly out of a particular area of space.

The best display of shooting stars this year occurs December 4-17, peaking over the night December 13 and 14.  This display is called the “Geminid meteor shower”:

  • Shooting stars are meteors — small pieces of dust in space that quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.  The dust particles for the Geminid meteor shower (or “the Geminids” for short) are leftover bits of an asteroid called3200 Phaethon” that flies very near the Sun every 1.4 years.  As the Earth orbits the Sun, every year at about this time we pass through the dust left behind by this asteroid’s many visits to our neck of the galactic woods.
  • It’s called the “Geminids” because the shooting stars in this meteor shower all appear to fly toward us from the Name A Star Live constellation Gemini.  The two brightest stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, are referred to as “the Twins” as they were famous brothers in classical mythology.
Shooting Star
A shooting star (in slow motion!). Image Credit: NASA

So if you’re looking for something romantic to do this month, consider going outside under the night sky with your significant other, and make some wishes upon every shooting star you see!  No telescope or binoculars needed: Just bring along a lawn chair or long towel on which to lie down.  You might want to bring along some food and drink and, depending on where you live in the world, either some mosquito repellant or warm clothing. Then, just look up.  You should see more shooting stars than you normally would on any night of the year.  Under perfect conditions — a clear sky, far from city lights, and viewing during the two or three hours right before sunrise the morning of December 14 — you might see as many as 120 shooting stars per hour.  But you can still see an above average number of shooting stars no matter what time of the night you look, and see a good show any clear night over the Dec. 4-17 time period.

See a trio of planets in the morning sky

The planets Jupiter, Mars and Venus put on quite an impressive display in the eastern sky before sunrise this month!  Venus is the bright ‘star’ above the eastern horizon, with bright Jupiter above.  Depending on how bright the night sky is in your area, you may also see the red planet Mars between Venus and Jupiter.

The planets

The planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter over the eastern horizon, shortly before sunrise.

Venus and Mars are in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo, while Jupter lies just inside Leo, the Lion.  The dim planets Uranus and Neptune are ‘visible’ in the early evening skies right now.  But again, they are dim planets that require a telescope in order to view them.  Uranus is in the Name A Star Live contellation Pisces, and Neptune is in Aquarius.

Use the Moon to Find Your Star’s Constellation

Did you know you can use the Moon to help identify constellations (areas of the night sky) like Aries, Taurus and Sagittarius?  Follow us on Twitter where we Tweet what constellation the Moon is in each night.  (Note that during certain times of the month, the Moon will not appear during the night hours, and so we do not Tweet info about the Moon at those times of the month.)

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. Log in to the My Sky section of our website to use our Constellation Calendar to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

Fall begins!

The fall equinox (or spring equinox if you are south of the equator) will occur at 8:21 UTC Wednesday, Sept 22.  That’s 4:21 am in EDT, 3:21 am CDT, 1:21 am PDT.

“Equinox” means equal night, because the Sun is exactly over the equator, the Earth’s terminator runs exactly from pole to pole, with all parts of earth receiving 12 hours of daylight and 12 of dark… but wait!  Look at your newspaper.  The time from sunrise to sunset on Sept 23 is actually LONGER than 12 hours, by about 6-7 minutes.  Why?


On an equinox, sunlight falls directly over the Earth’s equator.  The “terminator” — the line dividing daylight from nighttime — runs vertically from pole to pole.

Answer:  Actually the answer has two causes.  One is the finite size of the sun.  Sunrise is defined as the first part of the Sun peeking over the Eastern horizon, and sunset as the last part of the Sun slipping below the western horizon.  This is twelve hours PLUS the time that the Sun takes to move its width across the sky.  The Sun is a half-degree across and the Earth rotates 15 degrees per hour (360 degrees in 24 hours), so the Earth rotates a half-degree in two minutes.  So two minutes of the difference is just from the finite size of the Sun.   What is the rest?   REFRACTION.

Light refracts when passing through a medium.  If the medium is uniform, light just slows down a little. But if the medium is not uniform in density or thickness, the light bends.  Since the air is more dense near the Earth’s surface, the light moves more slowly there than in higher elevations, causing the wave front to tip forward, following the curvature of the Earth.  So we actually see the sun BEFORE it actually breaks our horizon, and we see it for a few minutes after sunset too..  And that’s the other 5 minutes!  The refraction depends on the air temperature, surface temperature, etc, but in general is just larger than the diameter of the Sun – we see all of the Sun before any of the Sun really is above the horizon!

More info: and

The Super “Blood Moon” Eclipse of 2015

Lunar eclipse over mountains

The dark red appearance of a full lunar eclipse is something special: Don’t miss this month’s eclipse! Photo Credit: Collin Von Son

In late September the Moon will undergo a rare total eclipse visible to most people in the Americas, Europe and Africa.  This Full Moon will also be known by several names, including the “Blood Moon,” the “Harvest Moon,” and the “Supermoon”! Continue reading