The Saturn Opposition

NASA image of Saturn

What has Saturn ever done to us?

No, there’s not an insurgency planning to take action against the planet Saturn!  Rather, this month Saturn will be at what astronomers call “opposition,” which is a great time to observe the beautiful ringed planet. On June 15 (June 16 for those of you in Australia, Japan, China, India and other parts of the eastern hemisphere), Saturn will be at opposition, meaning Saturn will be on the opposite side of the sky from the sun: When the sun sets that evening in the west, Saturn will rise in the east. Really, all of June and into July is a great time to see Saturn.

For the best view, wait until at least two hours after sunset to look at Saturn through a telescope.  (Before then, you’ll be looking at Saturn through the thicker layers of Earth’s atmosphere near the eastern horizon.) So get out your telescope and take a look at the beautiful ringed planet this summer!

Viewed from the northern hemisphere…

Saturn rising in the east during the evening hours of June. (View from the northern hemisphere of Earth.) To the right is the bright star Antares of the constellation Scorpius. Saturn will be near Antares all summer.

Viewed from the southern hemisphere…

Saturn rising in the east during the evening hours of June. (View from the southern hemisphere of Earth.) Above is the bright star Antares of the constellation Scorpius. Saturn will be near Antares all summer.

11 Earth's could fit across JupiterIn addition to Saturn, you can see the giant planet Jupiter in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo this month. Viewed through a telescope, you may see up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons. And did you know that 11 Earth’s could fit across the width of Jupiter?

Viewed from the northern hemisphere…

Jupiter will be over your southern horizon after sunset, near the bright star Spica and the constellation Corvus.

Viewed from the southern hemisphere…

Jupiter will be over your northern horizon after sunset, near the bright star Spica and the constellation Corvus.


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Mothers in the Sky

Andromeda and Cassiopeia
Cassiopeia and Andromeda — Two constellations (areas of the night sky) named after mothers from classical mythology. You can name a star in either constellation!

Naming stars for our mothers is popular today.  In fact, many objects in the night sky have been named after mothers for thousands of years.  And now mothers fly among the stars as astronauts!

The Name A Star Live constellations Andromeda and Cassiopeia are named after two beautiful mothers from classical mythology.  Cassiopeia, the Queen of the Ethiopians and the mother of Andromeda, was a prideful woman who boasted that she was more beautiful than the female attendants to Poseidon, the god of the sea.  For this transgression Poseidon punished Cassiopeia by sending a sea monster to attack Cassiopeia’s country and to kill Andromeda.  But Andromeda was saved and would later have seven children of her own.  Now both mothers travel together in the heavens above as the constellations we know them by today.

Continue reading “Mothers in the Sky”

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.


November’s Stars and Planets

The night sky puts on some neat shows this month.  And for those of you in the Land Down Under, you can look forward to an eclipse of the sun!

Shortly before dawn on November 26, Venus and Saturn appear very close together:

Chart showing planets and stars
Saturn and Venus appear to kiss shortly before sunrise on November 26. Go out about 45 minutes before sunrise that morning and face East-Southeast to see these two, bright planets.  If you’re lucky, you might also see the planet Mercury hugging the horizon.  You’ll also see the bright, binary star Spica, located in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo.

The evening of November 27 also presents a wonderful show:

Star Chart for November 27
Look for the Moon and the planet Jupiter toward the East-Northeast the evening of November 27. Both of these solar system objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus. Jupiter will be near the V-shaped group of stars (called “The Hyades”), marked by the star Aldebaran. Look above the Moon for the beautiful group of stars known as “The Pleiades,” which are often confused with The Little Dipper, which is a different group of stars altogether.

Those of you in Australia are in for a real treat this month: An eclipse of the sun!  The sun will be totally eclipsed by the moon along a narrow path across the Northern Territory and Queensland.  But those of you in the rest of Australia will see a partial eclipse (local weather permitting).

Australian map showing eclipse path
Australians will be able to see a solar eclipse the morning of November 14, 2012, weather permitting. A total eclipse of the sun will be visible along the path highlighted in red. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the remainder of Australia, as well as all of New Zealand.

Never look at the sun directly, even during an eclipse!  For more information about the eclipse, including how to observe it safely, read “Australia counts down to solar eclipse” appearing in Australia’s Cosmos magazine.  Those of you in New Zealand might want to check out the Stardome Observatory’s webpage about the eclipse.  Also, no matter where you live, you can watch the eclipse live, online.

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. You can use our online World Constellation Guide 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.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos and videos that have been posted on the Internet recently.  The photos are from  NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”  Enjoy!


IC 1396: Emission Nebula in Cepheus Image Credit: Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator, Color Composite: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory)

Stunning emission nebula IC 1396 mixes glowing cosmic gas and dark dust clouds in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Energized by the bright, bluish central star seen here, this star forming region is 3,000 light-years from planet Earth.


View of Lunar Surface from Apollo 11
Apollo 11 Landing Site Panorama
Credit: Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, NASA – Panorama by Syd Buxton

Assembled from high-resolution scans of the original film frames, this panorama sweeps across the magnificent desolation of the Apollo 11 landing site on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Taken by Neil Armstrong looking out his window of the Eagle Lunar Module, the frame at the far left (AS11-37-5449) is the first picture taken by a person on another world.


M72: A Globular Cluster of Stars
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, HPOW

Globular clusters of stars, such as M72, once ruled the Milky Way. Back in the old days, back when our Galaxy first formed, perhaps thousands of globular clusters roamed our Galaxy. Today, there are less than 200 left. Many globular clusters were destroyed over the eons by repeated fateful encounters with each other or the Galactic center. Surviving relics are older than any Earth fossil, older than any other structures in our Galaxy, and limit the universe itself in raw age. There are few, if any, young globular clusters in our Milky Way Galaxy because conditions are not ripe for more to form. Pictured above by the Hubble Space Telescope are about 100,000 of M72’s stars. M72, which spans about 50 light years and lies about 50,000 light years away, can be seen with a small telescope toward the Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius (the Water Bearer).


This is the ultimate cute, space video — “A Toy Train in Space” — a story of a father who sends his son’s toy train to the edge of space.


This is an absolutely beautiful video called “Purely Pacific Northwest” that features views of the Northern Lights and the Milky Way. View this one after a hard day’s work!

A Stellar Show for Early Birds!

If you’re an early riser, you’re in astronomical luck in September!  While Mars and Saturn are fading rapidly in the western sky during the early evening hours, Venus and Jupiter dominate the early morning eastern sky.

Jupiter in the east
This image shows the night sky in mid-September, facing east, shortly before sunrise.  Look for Jupiter near the V-shaped group of stars known as “The Hyades,” which are a part of the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus (the bull). The beautiful Pleiades are also part of Taurus, and are often confused with the Little Dipper.  While you’re at it, look for the prominent Name A Star Live constellation Orion (the hunter).  The three stars of Orion’s belt are easy to spot.  The bright planet Venus will be well below Jupiter, near the eastern horizon.
But fear not, fellow night owls, for you too can feast your eyes on some celestial treats!  The planets Neptune and Uranus will be visible through binoculars and small telescopes during the evening hours this month. In fact, now is a particularly good time to observe these two (not so bright) planets.  Uranus reaches what’s called “opposition” on September 29: That’s when the Earth is between Uranus and the Sun.  In other words, Uranus is on the opposite side of Earth than the Sun on September 29.  Neptune was at opposition last month, but is still a nice site to see through a telescope or binoculars.  While you can see both Neptune and Uranus through a telescope, Uranus — strictly speaking — is just barely visible to the naked eye — but just barely!  In order to see it, you’d need to go far from city lights and view it on a clear, moonless night.  (And you better have good eyesight to boot!)  We recommend sticking with your telescope or binocs!
Uranus and Neptune
This image shows the locations of Uranus and Neptune in mid-September.  Look for Uranus in the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces, and look for Neptune in the Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius this 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. You can use our online World Constellation Guide 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.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos and video that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Milky way
The Milky Way

This beautiful photo of the Milky Way was taken from Concordia Research Station, a remote Antarctic facility run by French and Italian scientists. The scientists at this facility are cut off from civilization during the winter months – no chance of resupply or rescue … much like future space explorers!

Pinwheel Galaxy
The Pinwheel Galaxy: The light from this galaxy takes 21 million years to reach Earth! Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR & UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/STScI

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy, or also known as M101, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from four of NASA’s space-based telescopes. This combination of telescope views into one image shows that both young and old stars are evenly distributed along M101’s tightly-wound spiral arms. Such composite images allow astronomers to see how features in one part of the spectrum match up with those seen in other parts. It is like seeing with a regular camera, an ultraviolet camera, night-vision goggles and X-ray vision, all at the same time.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is in the constellation of Ursa Major (which includes the Big Dipper). It is about 70% larger than our own Milky Way Galaxy, with a diameter of about 170,000 light years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light years from Earth. This means that the light we’re seeing in this image left the Pinwheel Galaxy about 21 million years ago – many millions of years before humans ever walked the Earth.

The hottest and most energetic areas in this composite image are shown in purple, where the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the X-ray emission from exploded stars, million-degree gas, and material colliding around black holes.

The red colors in the image show infrared light, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. These areas show the heat emitted by dusty lanes in the galaxy, where stars are forming.

The yellow component is visible light, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Most of this light comes from stars, and they trace the same spiral structure as the dust lanes seen in the infrared.

The blue areas are ultraviolet light, given out by hot, young stars that formed about 1 million years ago, captured by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX).

England at Night
England and Wales at Night

Billions of people are seeing London through many different filters and lenses during the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. None of those views looks quite like this one from NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite.  The image above shows London and the southern half of Great Britain as it appeared on the night of March 27, 2012.

Taikonaut Liu Yang

China’s first female astronaut (called “Taikonaut” in China), Liu Yang, emerges from the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which landed in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Friday, June 29, 2012. Liu and two other crew members returned safely to Earth after a 13-day mission to an orbiting prototype space station, the Tiangong-1.

Saturn with its largest moon, Titan. Shadows from Saturn's thin rings are cast onto the planet below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/J. Major

Humanity’s robot orbiting Saturn has recorded yet another amazing view. That robot, of course, is the spacecraft Cassini, while the new amazing view includes a bright moon, thin rings, oddly broken clouds, and warped shadows. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, appears above as a featureless tan as it is continually shrouded in thick clouds. The rings of Saturn are seen as a thin line because they are so flat and imaged nearly edge on. Details of Saturn’s rings are therefore best visible in the dark ring shadows seen across the giant planet’s cloud tops. Since the ring particles orbit in the same plane as Titan, they appear to skewer the foreground moon. In the upper hemisphere of Saturn, the clouds show many details, including dips in long bright bands indicating disturbances in a high altitude jet stream. Recent precise measurements of how much Titan flexes as it orbits Saturn hint that vast oceans of water might exist deep underground.

Here is a new video of time-lapse imagery of Earth taken from space courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.  This video was set to music by Tomislav Safundžić.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Helix Nebula
The Helix Nebula from the VISTA Telescope. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson; Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula, located in the Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius, is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken in three colors on infrared light by the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

Ringside with Titan and Dione. Credit : Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Orbiting in the plane of Saturn’s rings, Saturnian moons have a perpetual ringside view of the gorgeous gas giant planet. Of course, while passing near the ring plane the Cassini spacecraft also shares their stunning perspective. The rings themselves can be seen slicing across the middle of this Cassini snapshot. The scene features Titan, largest, and Dione, third largest moon of Saturn. Remarkably thin, the bright rings still cast arcing shadows across the planet’s cloud tops at the bottom of the frame. Pale Dione is about 1,100 kilometers across and orbits over 300,000 kilometers from the visible outer edge of the A ring. Dione is seen through Titan’s atmospheric haze. At 5,150 kilometers across, Titan is about 2.3 million kilometers from Cassini, while Dione is 3.2 million kilometers away.

The Large Magellanic Cloud
Infrared Portrait of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI

Cosmic dust clouds ripple across this infrared portrait of our Milky Way’s satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible in the southern hemisphere constellations Dorado and Mensa. In fact, the remarkable composite image from the Herschel Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope show that dust clouds fill this neighboring dwarf galaxy, much like dust along the plane of the Milky Way itself. The dust temperatures tend to trace star forming activity. Spitzer data in blue hues indicate warm dust heated by young stars. Herschel‘s instruments contributed the image data shown in red and green, revealing dust emission from cooler and intermediate regions where star formation is just beginning or has stopped. Dominated by dust emission, the Large Magellanic Cloud’s infrared appearance is different from views in optical images. But this galaxy’s well-known Tarantula Nebula still stands out, easily seen here as the brightest region to the left of center. A mere 160,000 light-years distant, the Large Cloud of Magellan is about 30,000 light-years across.

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232. Image Credit: FORS, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

Galaxies are fascinating not only for what is visible, but for what is invisible. Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, captured in detail by one of the new Very Large Telescopes, is a good example. The visible is dominated by millions of bright stars and dark dust, caught up in a gravitational swirl of spiral arms revolving about the center. Open clusters containing bright blue stars can be seen sprinkled along these spiral arms, while dark lanes of dense interstellar dust can be seen sprinkled between them. Less visible, but detectable, are billions of dim normal stars and vast tracts of interstellar gas, together wielding such high mass that they dominate the dynamics of the inner galaxy. Invisible are even greater amounts of matter in a form we don’t yet know – pervasive dark matter needed to explain the motions of the visible in the outer galaxy.  The Grand Spiral Galaxy is located in the constellation Eridanus, right below the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.

The Northern Lights as viewed from an Arctic research station.

In late January 2012 a strong solar storm hit Earth’s atmosphere. Charged particles from the sun interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create spectacular night shows of green light — the “Northern Lights,” or “Aurora Borealis.”  See a beautiful video of the Northern Lights shot in late January from Norway!

The Dog Days of Summer

Buttercup the dog
Buttercup, our CEO's dog, cooling off in the shade during the Dog Days of Summer

Here in the United States, it’s hot. Real hot. Vast areas of the country are experiencing record drought. As the old saying goes, we’re in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer.

You may be surprised to learn that the term “Dog Days of Summer” is based on astronomy. The term dates back to the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans who associated the first rising of the bright star Sirius — together with the early morning Sun — as marking the onset of very hot weather. In fact, the Romans (falsely) believed the heat from Sirius actually contributed to the hotter weather here on Earth during the summer months. The Egyptians called Sirius “the dog star” (among other names) and also associated its rise with the annual flooding of the Nile river, which was critical to Egyptian agriculture. The Romans, however, saw the Dog Days of Summer as an inauspicious time of year, when disease became rampant in the heat and humidity of summertime Rome.

Sopdit, an ancient Egyptian personification of the star Sirius. Image Credit: Jeff Dahl

Sirius is the brightest star in the nighttime sky, and is in the constellation Canis Major, which is Latin for “the large dog.”

The Romans considered the Dog Days of Summer to run from late July through late August. The Greek word ὀπώρα (Opora) appears in the lexicon of the King James Bible, and basically refers to the part of the year between the rising of Sirius and the rising of another star called “Arcturus,” which basically demarcate the period of time we call the Dog Days of Summer.

In folklore, the Dog Days of Summer were perceived as the time of year when dogs went mad with the extreme heat of summer.

Here is a little ditty from folklore about the Dog Days of Summer – a ditty that often appeared in farmers’ almanacs:

Dog days bright and clear
Indicate a happy year;
But when accompanied by rain,
For better times our hopes are vain

The Dog Days even appear in the Charles Dickens’ classic, wintertime tale, A Christmas Carol:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

See the planet Mars!

A heart-shaped surface feature on Mars.
From Mars, With Love. This heart-shaped pit on the surface of Mars was photographed by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.

Pull out your telescope and look to the skies above, for this is a good time to see the planet Mars as the famous “Red Planet” is near what’s called “opposition.”  This means that Mars and Earth are close to one another in their orbits around the Sun.  (See diagram below.)

Name A Star Live diagram of Mars at opposition
At opposition Mars and Earth are at their closest approach to one another in their orbits around the Sun. (Note that this diagram is not to scale.)

It’s called “opposition” because, when viewed from Earth, Mars and the Sun appear at opposite sides of the sky at sunset: on the day of opposition, Mars rises over the eastern horizon just as the sun sets over the western horizon.  While the Mars opposition was January 29, 2010, you can get good views of Mars throughout February.

If the star you have named is in the constellation Cancer then you’re in luck, for Mars is in the constellation Cancer as well for the next few months:  If you find Mars, then you’ve found the constellation Cancer!  Mars appears as a rather bright, reddish-orange object in the eastern sky during the first few hours after sunset this month.

Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars Credit: David Crisp and the WFPC2 Science Team (JPL/CIT), and NASA

If you have any trouble finding the planet, just use your Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software, which is included in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets.  Also, you can view Mars through the SLOOH online telescope — Name A Star Live is the only name-a-star company to offer SLOOH.

Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity to view the Red Planet as Mars oppositions occur only about once every 26 months.