Fall’s False Dawn

Zodiacal Light
A glow called the zodiacal light can be seen in the sky before sunrise for two weeks beginning in late September. It’s formed by sunlight scattered off of dust near the plane of Earth’s orbit. Credit: Yuri Beletsky/ESO Paranal

A beautiful, triangle-shaped glow of cosmic light appears in the eastern sky before sunrise for two weeks, from late September through mid-October for those of you who live in mid-northern latitudes (e.g., most of the US, southern Europe, Japan, northern China).  Called the “zodiacal light” (as the triangle of light extends from the sun along the constellations of the zodiac), this wondrous apparition can be viewed only if you are in a dark location, far away from bright, city lights.  The zodiacal light will appear slightly dimmer than the Milky Way, and will rise up through the zodiacal constellations Leo, Cancer and Gemini.

Zodiacal Dust Cloud

Zodiacal light is caused by the reflection of sunlight off of dust particles in the plane of the solar system. It’s viewable during the spring and summer of each year. Quoting NASA, “Zodiacal light is so bright this time of year because the dust band is oriented nearly vertical at sunrise, so that the thick air near the horizon does not block out relatively bright reflecting dust. Zodiacal light is also bright for people in Earth’s northern hemisphere in March and April just after sunset.”


Did you know you can use the Moon to find constellations in the night sky? Follow us on Twitter where we post information each day about what constellation (area of the night sky) the Moon is in that evening.

Name A Star Live offers some really good tools to learn about the night sky and find your star’s constellation. Visit our website to learn about our Virtual Planetarium software, planisphere constellation finder, and First Light Astronomy Kit!

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Scorpius in September

Butterfly Nebula
The Butterfly Nebula in the constellation Scorpius. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth’s night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, the Butterfly Nebula (a.k.a. NGC 6302) in the constellation Scorpius is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust.

Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star’s dusty cosmic shroud. The Butterfly Nebula lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Saturn
Saturn

While you need the Hubble Space Telescope to get such a spectacular view of an object like this in Scorpius, there are other neat things you can see in Scorpius with an amateur telescope or just a plain pair of binoculars.

The beautiful, ringed planet Saturn and the red planet Mars are both just to the east of the prominent, summertime constellation Scorpius. If you live in the northern hemisphere of Earth, look for Scorpius toward the south-southwest after sunset. Its brightest stars outline a large “J” in the night sky. Mars, Saturn and Scorpius’ bright, red star Antares form a triangle in the night sky.

Scorpius, Mars and Saturn
The constellation Scorpius, with Mars and Saturn, in mid-September 2016

While you need a telescope in order to get a good view of Mars and Saturn, with a simple pair of binoculars you can see two famous, open clusters of stars. Look for the two “stinger” stars at the tail end of Scorpius. Draw an imaginary line through them and extend the line eastward to Ptolemy’s Cluster (a.k.a. “M7”). M7 is about 800 light-years from Earth. In other words, the light you’ll see from this star cluster was generated 800 years ago! Just up and somewhat westward from Ptolemy’s Cluster is the Butterfly Cluster (a.k.a. “M6”), which is about 1,600 light-years from Earth. You should be able to see both M6 and M7 simultaneously through a pair of binoculars.

BTW, don’t confuse the Butterfly Cluster of star with the Butterfly Nebula. While they’re both in Scorpius, they are located in entirely different areas of the constellation.

Scorpius, Saturn, Mars
Scorpius as viewed from the southern hemisphere in mid-September 2016

If You’re in the Southern Hemisphere

If you’re in the southern hemisphere of Earth look for Scorpius high in the sky after sunset. The brighter stars of the constellation will form an upside-down letter “J”. Because Mars and Saturn will be much higher in the sky, you should get a better view of those two planets than observers in the northern hemisphere.


Don’t miss the Harvest Moon!

Harvest Moon
The Harvest Moon will occur on September 16, 2016.

The Harvest Moon in the northern hemisphere occurs Friday, September 16. The Harvest Moon is defined as the full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Full Moon occurs at 3:05 pm EDT (7:05 pm GMT) September 16. So grab your scythe, get out there and harvest the crops! If nothing else, take a peek at the beautiful full Moon tonight!

Did you know you can use the Moon to find constellations in the night sky? Follow us on Twitter where we post information each day about what constellation (area of the night sky) the Moon is in that evening.

Name A Star Live offers some really good tools to learn about the night sky and find your star’s constellation. Visit our website to learn about our Virtual Planetarium software, planisphere constellation finder, and First Light Astronomy Kit!

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest!

See Saturn and Mars tonight!

Saturn
Saturn

Tonight the beautiful, ringed planet Saturn, the red planet Mars and the red star Antares all form a line in the sky. Saturn’s easy to spot in the night sky, so get out your telescope and show your whole family this magnificent jewel of the solar system!

Here’s how to find Saturn and Mars tonight: Look for the three points of light you’ll see together toward the south-southwest this evening.  Antares — a bright, red star in the constellation Scorpius — will be at the bottom, Mars in the middle, and Saturn at the top.

Antares, Mars and Saturn in Scorpius
The bright star Antares, and the planets Mars and Saturn the evening of August 24, 2016

If You’re in the Southern Hemisphere

If you’re in the southern hemisphere of Earth look for Antares, Mars and Saturn over your north-northwestern horizon the evening of August 25.


Did you know you can use the Moon to find constellations in the night sky? Follow us on Twitter where we post information each day about what constellation (area of the night sky) the Moon is in that evening.

Name A Star Live offers some really good tools to learn about the night sky and find your star’s constellation. Visit our website to learn about our Virtual Planetarium software, planisphere constellation finder, and First Light Astronomy Kit!

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest!

Jupiter near the Moon tonight!

Family stargazing
Stargazing makes for family fun, and tonight’s a good night to see the planet Jupiter near the Moon!

The mighty planet Jupiter will appear very close to the crescent Moon tonight (Friday, July 8, 2016). Jupiter’s easy to spot in the night sky, so get out your telescope and show your whole family the king of the planets!

Here’s how to find Jupiter tonight: Look for the bright ‘star’ just above and to the left of the thin, crescent Moon. Both the Moon and Jupiter are in the constellation Leo this evening.

Jupiter and the Moon
Jupiter and the Moon as viewed from the northern hemisphere on July 8, 2016

Scientists believe Jupiter has 67 moons. You can easily see four of them through a telescope. But because they move so quickly around Jupiter, you may not see all of them at once: It just depends on when you look.

Jupiter and its four large moons
Jupiter and its four largest moons as viewed through a powerful amateur telescope. Image Credit: Michael Stegina/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

If You’re in the Southern Hemisphere

If you’re in the southern hemisphere of Earth Jupiter then you’re in luck! Jupiter will appear even closer to the Moon the night of July 9, 2016. Just look west-northwest shortly after sunset. Jupiter will appear just above, and to the right of the Moon.


Did you know you can use the Moon to find constellations in the night sky? Follow us on Twitter where we post information each day about what constellation (area of the night sky) the Moon is in that evening.

Name A Star Live offers some really good tools to learn about the night sky and find your star’s constellation. Visit our website to learn about our Virtual Planetarium software, planisphere constellation finder, and First Light Astronomy Kit!

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest!

See Saturn throughout June

 

Saturn
Saturn

This is a wonderful time to see the beautiful, ringed planet Saturn, which reached “opposition” this month. You can see Mars and Jupiter too!

“Opposition” just means that Earth is directly between Saturn and the sun – Saturn and the sun are on opposite sides of Earth. So Saturn rises in the east as the sun sets in the west. With Saturn at opposition, you can get a very good look at Saturn all month.

Saturn at opposition
Saturn and the sun are on opposite sides of the Earth in June. You can get a good view of the ringed planet all month! Image Credit: NASA

Saturn will be in the constellation Ophiuchus throughout the month. Ophiuchus is one of the constellations of the zodiac, like Aries, Taurus and Cancer. But it’s the one constellation of the zodiac not used for birth signs.

Saturn and Mars
Saturn and Mars in June’s night sky as viewed in the northern hemisphere

If you live in the northern hemisphere of Earth, look for Saturn toward the southeast about an hour or so after sunset. It will be the bright point of night just to the east of the bright constellation Scorpius. If your telescope is powerful enough, you will be able to see the dark gap in the rings known as the “Cassini division,” named after the French astronomer Jean D. Cassini who discovered the gap in 1675. While you’re checking out Saturn with your telescope, take a look at nearby Mars: If you look closely, you may see Mars’ ice cap!

Saturn and Mars
Saturn and Mars in June’s night sky as viewed in the southern hemisphere. You’ll find Saturn and Mars over your eastern horizon after sunset.

 

Fun Fact!

Saturn is the basis for the “Father Time” figure we see every New Year.

Father Time
Father Time traces its origins to Saturn from Roman mythology. Image Source: Pinterest.com

Father Time is usually depicted as an old man carrying a harvesting scythe, usually with the baby New Year. Actually, this association of Saturn with Father Time is an historical error that can be traced back to at least the Renaissance when the Roman god Saturn was mistakenly confused with the Greek god Chronos, god of time. Saturn was the Roman version of the Greek god Cronus, which sounds a lot like Chronos! So it’s easy to see how the two names could be mixed up! Just to be clear:

  • Cronus was the ancient Greek god who was the father of Zeus, king of the gods. The Romans adopted Cronus and renamed him Saturn, and adopted Zeus and renamed him Jupiter. In other words, Saturn was the father of Jupiter.
  • Chronos was the ancient Greek god of time. (We get the word “chronological” from Chronos.) But the names Cronus and Chronos were confused during the Renaissance (if not earlier), and the  Father Time figure was thus associated with Saturn by mistake.

See Saturn’s son Jupiter this month too!

Jupiter
Jupiter is in the constellation Leo throughout June. If you’re in the northern hemisphere of Earth, look for Jupiter and Leo toward the west-southwest shortly after sunset.

Jupiter, the son of Saturn and king of the gods, is also the name of the king of the planets. It’s easily seen in the constellation Leo throughout the month of June. Jupiter will be the brightest object in Leo this month — except when the Moon passes by!

Jupiter and Leo
Jupiter and Leo as viewed from the southern hemisphere of Earth. Look for Jupiter over the north-northwestern horizon shortly after sunset in June.

Did you know you can use the Moon to find constellations in the night sky? Follow us on Twitter where we post information each day about what constellation (area of the night sky) the Moon is in that evening.

Name A Star Live offers some really good tools to learn about the night sky and find your star’s constellation. Visit our website to learn about our Virtual Planetarium software, planisphere constellation finder, and First Light Astronomy Kit!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest!

The Night Sky of May 2016

The skies of May 2016 provide some wonderful celestial delights. Read on to see what you can see in the night sky this month!

Mars
Mars, the “Red Planet”
See the planet Mars in the night sky in May: The brightest it’s been in over a decade!
Mars opposition
Mars and the sun are on opposite sides of the Earth on May 22, which makes for a great opportunity to view the red planet! Image Credit: NASA

Mars reaches “opposition” on May 22, reaching peak visibility for 2016. In fact, Mars will appear brighter than it has since 2005. “Opposition” just means that Earth is directly between Mars and the sun – Mars and the sun will be on opposite sides of Earth on May 22. So during that evening Mars will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west. On May 30 Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth for the year. The two planets will be only 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) apart – that’s about half of the distance between the Earth and the sun. Continue reading “The Night Sky of May 2016”

The Big Dipper

When you name a star with Name A Star Live you choose the constellation (area of the night sky, such as Aries or Taurus) in which your star will be located. Many people want to name a star in the Big Dipper. But did you know the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation? It’s really a group of stars that are part of a very large constellation called “Ursa Major,” which is Latin for “big bear.”

Ursa Major
The Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the “big bear.” Image Credit: Pinterest.com

Various cultures around the world have interpreted these stars in interesting ways. The Iroquois and Micmac peoples of North America viewed the bowl of the Big Dipper as a bear that was pursued by a group of hunters — the stars in the Big Dipper’s handle. The Arabians viewed the Big Dipper as a funeral procession with the Big Dipper’s bowl as the deceased and the stars in the handle as the mourners. The Germans thought of the Big Dipper as a large wagon. And in classical mythology the Big Dipper and the nearby Little Dipper were a mother and son that Zeus, the king of the gods, had transformed into bears and placed in the heavens.

Alaska's flag
This is the state flag of Alaska, which features the Big Dipper and the North Star. In the Alaskan flag the two stars on the right-hand side of the Big Dipper point to the North Star.

Sailors, pilots and hikers have long used the Big Dipper to navigate. The two stars on the outer edge of the Big Dipper’s bowl are referred to as the “Pointer Stars.” If you draw a line from these two stars, the line will point to the North Star. In fact, American slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad used the pointer stars of the “drinking gourd” (as they knew the Big Dipper) to find their way North to freedom.

Alcor and Mizar
The stars Alcor and Mizar are circled in green.

When you look at the Big Dipper, see if you can distinguish between the two bright stars Alcor and Mizar in the Big Dipper’s handle. Being able to distinguish between these two, close stars is a traditional test of one’s eyesight. These two stars — a.k.a. “the horse and the rider” — are about 83 light-years from Earth. The brighter star Mizar is actually a quadruple star system, and its dimmer neighbor Alcor is a binary star system.

When can you see the Big Dipper?

The Big Dipper is visible all year from most of Europe, the northern U.S. and Canada. In the southern U.S. it can be seen in the springtime during evening hours. Visit our online Constellation Calendar to see when the Big Dipper (in Ursa Major) is visible from your community.


 

Star Bear Gift Set
Name a star in Ursa Major with the Star Bear Gift Set

If you’re thinking of naming a star in the Big Dipper for someone, consider Name A Star Live’s popular Star Bear Gift Set. This unique gift includes:

  • A Star Bear — a cuddly teddy bear holding a star. What more appropriate way to name a star in the “Big Bear”?
  • A printed Star Certificate;
  • A digital, letter-size Star Certificate that you can download and print right away;
  • A digital Launch Certificate we provide to you after we launch your star’s name into space: We’re the only star-naming service that makes you part of a real space mission!

 

See Jupiter and the Moon tonight!

Jupiter will appear near the Moon tonight.
Jupiter will appear near the Moon tonight.

Tonight you’re in for a special treat: The mighty planet Jupiter will be near the Moon. Both celestial objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Leo all night long.

Jupiter and its four largest Moons as viewed through an amateur telescope.
Jupiter and its four largest moons as viewed through an amateur telescope.

While no telescope is required to spot Jupiter — it will be the bright, star-like object nearest the Moon — if you have a telescope you will likely be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons. These moons are known as the “Galilean satellites” named in honor of Galileo, who discovered them in 1610 and observed their movement through a telescope. These four moons are known as Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede — Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury.

If you can stay up late tonight, try viewing the moons twice this evening, about two hours apart. You’ll notice the moons change position relative to Jupiter. In fact you may see the four moons at one time, and see only two or three of the moons a couple of hours later.

The Sky Tonight
The “Sky Tonight” module in Virtual Planetarium shows you what planets and constellations are visible in the night sky.

Tip: With our Virtual Planetarium astronomy software you can see what planets are visible any night of the year! Specifically, Virtual Planetarium’s “Sky Tonight” module shows you the constellations and planets you can see tonight, or any night. Details….

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.

A Stormy Meteor Shower This Month!

Radiant
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.